Can Mahler rescue Schumann’s flawed symphonies?

Can Mahler rescue Schumann’s flawed symphonies?

Album Of The Week

norman lebrecht

October 08, 2022

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

he symphonies of Robert Schumann are vastly influential and infrequently performed. There are problems with some of the instrumental writing, but the main impediment is the lack of a big tune that folks could hum on their way home. Schumann does large themes, not big tunes. Here and there (in the opening movement of the first symphony, for instance) they are large enough to be portentous, only to sound pretentious on repetition. Of the four symphonies, only the third has genuine audience appeal.

Still, Schumann cannot be ignored….

Read on here.

And here.

En francais ici.


  • RW2013 says:

    These symphonies don’t need rescuing!

  • Adam Stern says:

    I hear you, and yet… I love the Schumann symphonies dearly; I find them effervescent, profoundly moving, and full of the joys of life and creation. (I also love his sorta-kinda symphony, the “Overture, Scherzo and Finale”.) With a little loving care, a conductor and orchestra can make the original instrumentations come off just fine, with all due respect to Mahler’s ministrations.

    Heretic though I may be, I hold the Schumann symphonies in the same esteem I do those of Brahms.

    • zeno north says:

      No charges of heresy from this quarter, but since I “OD’d” on the Brahms Symphonies in my late 20s and rarely turn to them anymore (except at the piano) I’m not an objective judge. I just can’t think of anything in the Brahms symphonies that “swings” like the 1st mvt. of the “Rhenish”.

  • The View from America says:


    A. No. Mahler’s misconceived alterations make them sound smoother, like Brahms, while inserting sudden dynamic changes to forestall the blandness those alterations had inevitably created. All of the rawness, which gives Schumann’s symphonies their life, is vitiated by Mahler, and that’s more than enough reason to pass them by.

  • Amos says:

    IMO the Schuman Symphonies did not require Mahler’s re-write and are not well served by his efforts. In there own style/method Bernstein with the NYPO and George Szell with TCO managed to produce superb recordings with no doubt who the composer was. In the Sony CD re-issue of the Szell cycle his 1960 article making the case for their performance is included in it’s entirety. The article can also be found here:

  • J Barcelo says:

    “Infrequently performed”? Maybe in Britain, but not where I live. I’ve heard them all, and played them all, more times than I can remember. I have a very fond memory of hearing a stunning performance of the 2nd with the Philharmonia on tour with Sinopoli.

    It’s a myth that the orchestration is bad, it just needs attention to balance. A skilled and caring conductor can do wonders with the originals like Bernstein did in his recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic. Mahler’s touchups are interesting; his cut at the end of the 2nd intolerable (Leinsdorf had the good sense to restore those missing bars when he used the Mahler editions). We’ve heard all this before. Aldo Ceccato’s early set on Bis was clearly outclassed by Chailly on Decca. Can Alsop really bring something that makes the new recording desirable? Chailly is a tough act to follow.

    • Warrick says:

      I would describe myself as a lover of Classical music. I possess a good collection of CDs (and LPs for that matter. However I am nearer 90 than 80 and have damaged nerves in my ears which results in some notes being distorted and discordant, while others are absent. Listening is no longer an option, so I have to rely on memory. So when I read of criticism of conductor X with orchestra Y playing symphony Z, I don’t envy, I pity those who seem to take so much for granted. Enjoy it while you can and be amazed that such great recordings of great music are available at the press of a button.

  • Alphonse says:

    Mahler’s angsty, neurotic symphonies are a hell of a lot more flawed than Schumann’s.

  • Richard Zencker says:

    I decided some time ago that Schumann’s symphonies are not “flawed.” A good conductor can do wonders with the works as written; see Haitink’s 1980s cycle. I also seem to remember being somewhat underwhelmed by Chailly’s recordings of the Mahler versions; I have not heard the Naxos recording.

  • Christopher Stager says:

    The Chailly / Gewandhaus set is spectacular. The opening to the First is a revalatory solution to the problem. (And may be less of a re-scoring than a restoration of Schumann’s original intention.)

  • MacroV says:

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but #2 is my favorite.

    For me Schumann is kind of meat and potatoes; fills you up but not much spice. And something you have once in a while but don’t go out of the way for. Probably he’s just a very conventional orchestrator.

    Mahler’s alterations to other composers’ works often seem to be exaggerated, but I love Mahler, so am game to hear it. I suspect a re-orchestration by Schonberg or Richard Strauss would have been more interesting.

  • Violinist says:

    I disagree that only no 3 has an appeal, no 2 when performed well is a great symphony. Problem is all the great orchestras have too many old farts in the first violin section who can barely make it pass the second movement and have nothing left in the tank for the remainder of the symphony

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      I absolutely adore the Feierlich of Symphony #3. When I visited Bonn I stood beside the River Rhine and this symphony just echoed through my brain the whole time, moving me to tears. Then off to see his grave just up the road.

  • Baffled in Buffalo says:

    “Still Schumann cannot be ignored”. How gracious of you, Mr. Lebrecht. I must say, it is hard to attain a grasp on exactly what you represent, Mr. L. I thought that, whatever your foibles, you were someone who appreciated a wide range of classical (and other) music, whether “tuneful” or not very tuneful, e.g. Birtwistle (who I learned about through Slipped & have begun, happily, to explore. But now you tell us that a symphony that does not have at least one tune–a “showstopper”–that sends an audience home humming is deficient in the manner of burnt toast. I am speechless in the face of such Philistinism (you certainly would not have been admitted to Davidsbundler Robert S. maintained in his imagination ). I’d like to say I will just not read this site anymore, but there is, alas, too much worthwhile information here, e.g. the link to the delightful interview with the conscientious Russian violinist Alena (?) Baeva.

  • trumpetherald says:

    This article sounds like a reprint from a 1930s article.It´s absolutely removed from reality. At least one Schumann Symphony is played every week somewhere in the world.
    Yes,you have to adjust the timpani parts to the harmony and chords,same as you should in Dvorak,Verdi et al.
    Otherwise,Schumann´s symphonies are perfect,if played and conducted transparently and stylistically appropriate.
    They certainly don´t need Mahler´s vulgar and crass “improvements”.That´s why they are played all over the world in their original versions,while the Mahler reorchestrations are a curiosity.

    • J Barcelo says:

      For the record: Mahler’s improvements are not at all vulgar or crass. He cleaned up the orchestration, made some revoicing, eliminated some doublings, and generally made them “sound” better. They sound clearer for sure. His changes were not unlike those made by Szell, Toscanini, Kubelik, Barenboim and practically everyone else.

  • Novagerio says:

    Who said Schumann’s symphonies are flawed?

  • Paul Johnson says:

    The pussy riot conductor is not for me.
    I have the Chailly set.

  • Omar Goddknowe says:

    Schumann Symphonies are perfect as they are. The conductor has to actually do their job in rehearsals and concerts instead of emoting for the audience in terms of balance, phrasing and pacing.

  • Boris says:

    What nonsense. A tired view from 30 years ago. Schuman’s symphonies are marvelous and beloved and are played regularly around the world. The 2nd may be his greatest symphonic work. And none of them need Mahler’s meddling.

    • Frank Mann says:

      I should be so lucky as to find my “tunes” meddled with by Mahler, though why shouldn’t we let Schumann be Schumann, his music is greatness enough, and still greater when the keenest performers go deep enough. Like Schubert, greatness too hidden for too many.

      We sang Mahler’s 2nd with the Cleveland Orchestra, and CvD released our version as a live CD, in-house, in 2002. Like much of Schumann 2nd, it was at those storied final moments an out of body expedition. That showed out from its hiding place between the notes.

      Much of Schumann is like that, and inserting what we may into that would be the horse before the cart, in the chronology of those, no matter the stature of some other.

      Whatever great additions Mahler might bring, it would be an historical “putting the cart before the horse.”

      Mahler had learned from a master. Let’s let them both be their own, all the more so.

      £4£&$4$+my2¢ ~

      “Genius is only the drayhorse that coaxes the built cart out / And where we go is reason.”

      ~ Kenneth Patchen, California poet, “Love Seen as a Search for the Lost”

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    Interesting article Norman. I disagree to a point on your 2 main arguments. There are great ‘tunes’ in all movements of the ‘Rhenish’ for example & some memorable melodic moments in the 4th (his best I think- one of the greatest symphonies by any composer). Schumann is often labelled as a poor ‘orchestrator’ also. But again it demands on your parameters- Rimsky or Ravel he certainly ain’t- but its quite adequate within the confines of the mid 19th century orchestra capabilities & sonorities which Schumann had at is disposal. In fact- its not a problem of RS- rather more by inadequate conductors who have little time for balancing his delicate textures- treating it as if Tchaikovsky. Whether Mahler could do better is an interesting one.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Curiously a CD I have of Symphony No. 2 (probably my favorite) with liner notes by a Brit also claims that the symphony is the least played of the four, which makes me think this level of neglect is local not universal. The allegro vivace second movement is on so many violin section audition lists, clearly somebody (a lot of somebodies, and influential ones at that) thinks it is something a violinist had pretty darn well have in his fingers before being put on stage. My own teacher made it part of our lesson material even though I was not playing it in concert and was not on the audition trail. It isn’t the perpetual motion-like opening that is the killer, difficult though it is at least for me, but those damned “rub your stomach and pat your head” slurred passages that follow, at full tempo. We also worked on the third movement because of my unfortunate tendency — my inner Mischa Elman I guess — to reach for those glorious high notes using more portamento than he thought wise for a member of the tutti, unless asked for by the conductor.

    I also question the claim that too few “tunes” is somehow why the symphonies are on the back burner (which again I see no evidence of). If tunes made a composer great then we’d think more highly of, and hear more from, Cécile Chaminade. The motifs are clear enough that you can hear and sense the working out of sonata form which is what a symphony really needs in the way of “tunes.”

    As for the orchestration, I would agree that Schumann, in common with so many piano-oriented composers, did not seem to have an instinctive feel for how to convert piano-originated musical ideas into writing for full string sections. In every one of the four there are passages where the strings have to play a “chugga chugga” pattern that actually weakens the strength of the section’s sound. It is almost as if he felt he needed to write for Baroque bows in the manner of the opening to the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto. Conductors I have played under have quietly “rethought” some of those passages even while claiming to play an unretouched version.

  • Alank says:

    How can you not find great warmth and joy in the theme of the last movement of the second symphony? I love it every time I hear it. Mr Lebrecht is way of base in this column

  • KANANPOIKA says:

    Kindly check out the stunningly played recordings with Sawallisch and the Staatskapelle Dresden…..

  • christopher storey says:

    No 4 is a work of genius – the first “through composed” symphony – and there really is nothing wrong with any of the other 3 ( or the Overture Scherzo and Finale ) for that matter . NL is entitled to his opinion, but it is just that – an opinion

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    “infrequently performed” . . . Schumann?!? Maybe in Britain, but not any place I’ve ever lived. I personally prefer them to the four Brahms symphony, but that’s just me. And as I much I do love Mahler symphonies and song cycles, I don’t view Mahler’s retuschen of the Schumann symphonies to be an improvement. They are interesting in their own right, but not an improvement. And just for the record, NL, Schumann’s alleged anti-Semitic barb at Mendelssohn has never been confirmed.

  • Vittorio Parisi says:

    An article not worth of Slipoed disc high standard