Towers of Power

Frenchman Paul Paray’s reputation rests with his incisive interpretations of the French literature, notably Ravel, Ibert and Debussy. But Paray, who was the music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from 1952-63, could also invigorate the Germanic repertoire with his strong rhythmic pulse and his scrupulous attention to detail. For evidence, one need only listen to this reissue, a bold foray with the DSO into Schumann’s fervid, roiling symphonic world. Overall, Paray isn’t as successful a Schumann interpreter as Solti or Bernstein. There’s a certain Romantic swagger missing, and Paray coaxes the DSO to play with more muscularity than ardor. But all these works are performed with high zest and keen skill.

The Spring Symphony is blooming with vitality, as is the first movement of the Second Symphony. The Second’s slow movement lacks the vaulted sublimity that makes for a superior reading, and the commanding first movement of the Fourth is a little short on electric edge. Paray’s rhythmic drive is abundantly apparent in the swaying Rhenish Symphony, and his acute sense of balance comes to the fore in the Scherzo, where the woodwinds and strings exchange a lilting dialogue. The program is rounded out with a robust traversal of the Manfred Overture.

This music was recorded between 1954 and 1958, with the last symphony, released in mono, recorded earliest. All selections were recorded at Orchestra Hall, with the exception of the Rhenish Symphony, which was performed at Ford Auditorium. That would explain its muffled, rather dry acoustic in comparison with the more vibrant tone of the other works.

Schumann has long been criticized for the thick textures in his symphonies, which often result in muddy performances. The fault, it seems, rests more often than not with sloppy articulation among orchestral musicians and heavy-handed conductors. Paray’s springy rhythms and strong but graceful lines bring a refreshing buoyancy to these maligned but towering symphonies.

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