With the reissue of these 1972 recordings, EMI has brought back into print the finest set of the four symphonies thatís ever been set down on tape. Itís a rare enough occurrence when almost every detail of a piece seems to fall into place; in four of the most difficult works in the repertory, itís practically unheard of. Everything about these symphonies is tinged with that peculiar blend of optimistic joy and Romantic nostalgia that was uniquely Schumannís. Whatís wonderful about Sawallischís readings is that though heís clearly attuned to their emotional components, he never overplays them. Nothing ever sounds forced or artificial.
The slow movement of the Second Symphony has a wonderful, hushed solemnity to it, but Sawallisch never tries to milk it for sentiment, as others (notably Bernstein) have done. The slow introduction to the Fourth is grand without being pompous. And Sawallisch brings a miraculous clarity to Schumannís dense orchestral textures without resorting to reorchestration, as George Szell did. He also has the benefit of great playing from the Dresden band: the strings have a rich, organ-like sonority, and the brass are majestic without being edgy. The remastered sound takes away the slight harshness that was part of this setís first appearance on CD. I wouldnít want to be without the perspectives that Szell, Bernstein, and Dohnányi bring to these inexhaustible works, but Sawallisch gets the nod as my proverbial desert-island set. Essential.