Album Title: Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 1
Performers: Charles Munch/Boston Symphony Orchestra
Label: High Definition Tape Transfers HDDVD125
Running time: 40'28"
Recorded: 1955 (1st Symphony), 1961 (Manfred)

I have generally approached the symphonies of Schumann as I approach driving through Detroit - get in quick and out as fast as I can. Mind you, my reasons for either are a tad different. One is because I don’t want to die in a hailstorm of gunfire. The other... well, Schumann wasn’t exactly the most gifted symphonic writer. It also doesn’t help that many conductors treat his symphonic works as some lumbering Teutonic wall of mud. That said, there are plenty of fine moments in Schumann’s symphonies. It simply takes a light touch on the podium and the right orchestra to reveal Schumann’s usually obscured subtleties.

That's why I have long highly regarded Sawallisch’s EMI set of the four symphonies with the lovely translucent Staatskapelle Dresden. These recordings are all about textural balance, clarity, spontaneity and temporal flexibility. You really can hear wonderfully inventive individual lines and threads that are completely obscured in other interpretations.

Today's recording of Schumann’s 1st Symphony and the Manfred Overture comes courtesy of High Definition Tape Transfers who take commercially released open-reel tapes from the golden age of recording and meticulously remaster them to a variety of digital formats - 24/96 & 24/192 FLAC downloads, 24/96 DVD-R, CD-R or high-quality CD (HQCD). The latter rely on CD-Rs with special materials and dyes for enhanced sonics. This performance with Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra originates from a 1955 RCA tape that was produced by the legendary recording duo of Richard Mohr and Robert Layton.

As in my review of Szell’s Mahler's 4th Symphony, the sound quality is outstanding especially in the more resolving 24/96 format. The top end is far more open and nuanced and exhibits less of that brittle edge of CD sound. As mentioned in the liner notes however, do expect the occasional tick and pop. This might be a deal breaker for the more obsessive listener but I didn’t mind at all. I just pretended I was listening to vinyl.

Written in 1841 and sometimes referred to as the Spring Symphony, the 1st is arguably the most infectious of Schumann’s four and does seem to evoke a sense of nature’s renewal. Munch’s interpretation is indeed quite the barnburner. Our man Charles pretty much puts the foot down from the word go and keeps it on the floor throughout the performance. I quite enjoyed this vibrant, blazing white-hot if heavy-handed account. Tempi tend to be a little more restrained than on the EMI set and textures are not quite as translucent but the sheer excitement and the BSO’s virtuoso playing and their customary biting horns more than compensate. The Manfred Overture fills out the disc and is equally exciting and well paced. I still prefer Sawallisch’s smiling and more sympathetic account of the 1st, which is a little lighter in texture and a tad more easy going but if you hanker for a swill of piss and vinegar in your Schumann, do check out this fine HDTT release.