Schumann’s Wretched Life-And His Bossy New Champion

Many musicians of my acquaintance have a special soft spot for Robert Schumann. The music of this arch-Romantic composer of the first half of the 19th century may not afford them the opportunity to explore the dazzling logic of Bach, the playful perfection of Mozart or the lofty peaks of Beethoven, but it offers something incomparably satisfying all its own: an invitation to touch the soul of a man whose prodigious wrestling with his demons makes him perhaps the most human of the great composers.

Schumann, who died of self-starvation in an insane asylum in 1856 (he was 46), was in many ways the first modern composer. His music sprang directly out of what psychologists have identified as a defining characteristic of modern man: the divided self. Born in 1810, too late to benefit from the aristocratic patronage that Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven had enjoyed, and lacking the precocity and virtuosity that propelled the careers of Mendelssohn, Chopin and Liszt, Schumann struggled against odds sufficient to fill the oeuvre of Thomas Hardy. He was a composer obliged to support himself as a music critic and an editor; a pianist who had to abandon performance because of an injured finger; husband to a wife whose fame outstripped his own (Clara Wieck, the most celebrated female piano virtuoso of the 19th century) and who never forsook her loyalty to a father who was her husband’s implacable enemy. An ambitious man, a man of genius, Schumann had to contend with physical and mental disorders resulting from, among other things, excessive drinking, an early bout of malaria and possibly of syphilis, trauma over the premature death of his friend Mendelssohn, manic depression and a self-annihilating impulse whose seeds may have been sown by the adolescent suicide of his sister.

Schumann was also the first great self-conscious composer. Largely self-taught, he constructed an elaborate dream world in which ideas, intimations and feelings crystallized into scintillating fragments for the voice and the piano, caught on the fly, so to speak. Many of these works were deliberately expressive of the bipolar aspects of his personality-one assertive, the other reflective. (With childlike flair, he personified them as imaginary friends-extroverted Florestan, introverted Eusebius.) These fragments eventually coalesced into grand symphonic visions. Schumann was not just a brilliant miniaturist, but a radical innovator of monumental form who sought to combine the different impulses of his two great predecessors in the symphonic medium: the dramatic urgency of Beethoven and the spacious lyricism of Schubert. For good measure, he also added to the mix what John Daverio, in his superb biography Robert Schumann: Herald of a “New Poetic Age” (1997) calls a “third dimension”: “the aesthetic of the apparently banal, commonplace, or grotesque,” thus prefiguring by half a century Mahler’s potent alchemy of the vulgar and the sublime.

Even so, nearly 150 years after his death, Schumann’s standing as a master of the symphony remains in question. As the British musicologist Donald Francis Tovey observed, “No orchestra ever earned its reputation by its interpretation of Schumann.” With the exception of the popular Piano Concerto in A Minor and two of the symphonies-the First (the Spring ) and the Third (the Rhenish )- the composer’s large instrumental works have always struck many as quixotic rather than fulfilled.

Perhaps to sweep away such doubts, Daniel Barenboim and his German orchestra, the Staatskapelle Berlin, recently brought an all-Schumann cycle of four concerts to Carnegie Hall, highlighted by the composer’s four symphonies and three concertos, performed by an ensemble best known for its work as an opera orchestra (the Lindenoper) and an array of big-name soloists. I heard three of the four programs and came away filled with doubts-not about Schumann the symphonist, but about this particular conductor as his champion.

Maestro Barenboim is a world-class musical statesman and a world-class pianist, but as a concert conductor he comes across as bossy. His very appearance sets the tone: At the first concert, he strutted onstage behind the shy-mannered, shaggy-maned piano soloist, Radu Lupu, and got the orchestra to rise by putting a hand on the concertmaster’s back and pushing him, literally, out of his chair.

Pushiness prevailed. “Poetic” is the first adjective about Mr. Lupu’s playing that generally comes to mind, and the Piano Concerto in A Minor, with its almost improvisational flow of melodic ideas and quicksilver changes of mood, is the poet’s concerto par excellence. There were wonderful moments when the Romanian pianist caressed a phrase with characteristic elegance, but they were fleeting. This was a glossy, hard-driven account of the most Romantic of concertos-taut, not tender; muscular, not magical. “This is a guy thing, not a girl thing,” Mr. Barenboim seemed to be saying, as if trying to remove any hint of the perfume that must have been in the air when Clara Schumann played the work at its premiere in 1845. One of the most appealing things about Schumann is his hot-headedness; this Schumann had cool-headed calculation written all over it.

Things opened up in the next piece, the Second Symphony, which Schumann composed in 1845-46 to mark his recovery from a “dark time.” Mr. Barenboim can be a powerful conductor of opera, particularly of Wagner’s rolling thunder, and he brought a marvelous sense of floating timelessness to the work’s great, chorale-like third movement that held the audience rapt in their absorption of the music’s unfathomable beauty.

Bombast returned two nights later in a reading of the Overture to Manfred , which brought out the ensemble’s penchant for producing a hard-edged, unfelt sound. Yo-Yo Ma was an ardent soloist in the Cello Concerto, but Mr. Barenboim’s way of exaggerating every crescendo seemed designed to turn the piece into exactly what Schumann disliked most about the concerto form-a brewing contest between virtuoso soloist and virtuoso orchestra. Mr. Ma received his usual superstar’s ovation, but in a show of good taste that may have been prompted by dismay over the unseemly incoherence of what had just transpired, he resisted Mr. Barenboim’s entreaty for an encore. The youthful Spring Symphony, which followed the intermission, brought out all of Mr. Barenboim’s fondness for histrionics-the simulated bowing with the cellists, the stabbing baton for the woodwinds’ plaintive entrance, the chest-puffing posturing to the left, then to the right, as if he were refereeing a tug-of-war between the strings.

The following night, I felt that I heard Schumann the man for the first time during Gidon Kremer’s playing of the solo part in the Violin Concerto. Composed in 1853, when Schumann was entering his final, unhinged phase, this haunting, meandering work was suppressed by his heirs as evidence of creeping dementia until 1933, when a violinist named Jelly d’Aranyi reportedly learned of its existence through a spiritualist, who directed her to its hiding place in a library in Berlin. (The full score of the concerto wasn’t published until 1956.) Collaborating with a musician of Mr. Kremer’s riveting sensitivity, Mr. Barenboim held back, allowing the composer’s voice to be heard in all its valiant, sorrowing eloquence.

After the intermission came the Fourth Symphony, a work whose composition spans the composer’s early and late period. It is more fantasia than symphony in its blurring of the conventional four-movement form, and it reveals Schumann as the resolute pathbreaker more lucidly than any of his other large-scale works. I’m not sure what, exactly, was lacking in the details of Mr. Barenboim’s blustery approach; but once again I felt that I was hearing only the outer shell of the music, not its animating spirit.

There are, I think, two kinds of conductors: those who impose their will on the music, stamping it with their personality, and those who coax the music into being, effacing themselves in the process. Mr. Barenboim belongs to the former category, and in his heavy hands, Schumann, the most mercurial searcher among the great Romantics, got lost.