All recent recordings of the Schumann symphonies -- including original-instruments versions by Roger Norrington (EMI-Angel) and Derek Solomons (Collins) -- feature the lean, incisive style in Schumann that was pioneered by George Szell, rather than the more romantically inflected approach of Wilhelm Furtwangler and the late Leonard Bernstein.
Among the best of the sons of Szell is David Zinman, who has recorded the symphonies on two Telarc discs with the Baltimore Symphony. It is good that these discs are separately available because the performances of Nos. 1 and 4 are better than those of Nos. 2 and 3. Part of the problem with the latter seems be tubby recorded sound -- the albums had different producers.
But there also seems to have been a falling off in Zinman's inspiration when he got around to recording the "Rhenish" (No. 3) and No. 2. In concert, No. 2 had extraordinary tension and whiplash clarity and the "Rhenish" had exuberant thrust and a perpetually singing line. In his recording of No. 2, the conductor seems a little too careful and too concerned with ensemble to let the music move. The "Rhenish" just doesn't possess the urgency that it did in the concert hall.
While these are good performances -- much better than the turgid ones of Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra (London) -- they are not as distinguished as the same conductor and orchestra's splendid versions of Nos. 1 and 4.
Two other fine recordings of Nos. 1 and 4 are by Riccardo Chailly with Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra (London) and by Kurt Masur and the London Philharmonic (Teldec). You can't go wrong with either of these. But although Chailly has the greater orchestra, it is Masur, the recently appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic, who has the more interesting things to say. No performances since those of Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Dresden State Orchestra (on mid-priced EMI discs) are so good at stressing the Beethovenian aspects of these compositions. Such sensitive and profound Schumann makes one look forward to the completion of Masur's cycle.
Of the two original-instruments discs, that of Solomons (Nos. 1 and 4) with the Authentic Orchestra is poorly played and interpreted and that of Norrington (Nos. 3 and 4) with the London Classical Players is terrific. With his exciting tempos and his light, transparent approach, Norrington produces an effect like that of removing the varnish from a painting by an old master. His is one of the most exciting "Rhenish" symphonies since the famous Toscanini-NBC Symphony broadcast once available on RCA records.