Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Paavo Järvi records Franz Schmidt’s Four Symphonies for Deutsche Grammophon

Classical Source
October 2020
Richard Whitehouse

Paavo Järvi has emerged among the most assiduous recording artists of today, threatening to outdo his father in symphonic cycles (witness his Beethoven, Brahms, Nielsen, and Sibelius for RCA). Almost three decades after Neeme set down the Schmidt Symphonies in Chicago and Detroit (Chandos), Paavo in Frankfurt now releases his take on a cycle also tackled by Ludovit Rajter in Bratislava (Opus), Fabio Luisi in Leipzig (Querstand) or Vassily Sinaisky in Malmö (Naxos) without yet entering the repertoire outside the composer’s native Austria.

Järvi takes a long-breathed of the introduction to the First Symphony, the opening movement (its repeat taken) unfolding at a lively tempo flexible enough to give the easeful second theme room to breathe; with no lack of focus during a development as seems almost a paraphrase of the exposition, before a clinching coda. The clarinet melody that launches the slow movement is touchingly rendered, Järvi duly intensifying the rapture and anguish encountered in what is the work’s most prescient section. He also plays up the Scherzo’s bustling gait with its teasing pauses, keeping a firm grip on the Trio as this subsides into a reverie whose enchantment never cloys. Rather dutifully fulfilling its formal remit, the Finale’s trenchancy of purpose overcomes some less than distinctive material en route to a close as brings the work decisively full-circle.

This account of the Second Symphony is among the swiftest yet, appropriate to the opening movement whose polyphonic intricacy can easily become moribund if not integrated within a cumulative design; something Järvi recognises while also harnessing its rhetoric to powerful effect, not least in the coda’s oblique trajectory. Almost as successful is the central Allegretto, its theme of disarming naivete channelled into eight diverse variations, by turns animated and soulful (the eighth generous in its Hungarian pathos), towards a ‘Scherzo and Trio’ where the rumbustious and ruminative find enticing accord. The Finale, however, feels a shade literal in the unforced yet methodical emergence from its placid initial theme, via the fugal interplay of motifs and textures, to the chorale that Järvi builds to an eventually resplendent apotheosis.

Following Schmidt’s grandest and most opulent Symphony with the Intermezzo from his first opera Notre Dame risks anti-climax (at least for CD listeners). It could have been placed after the First Symphony that precedes it chronologically; better still to have included it as part of the Suite which both Sinaisky and Yakov Kreizberg (Pentatone) have demonstrated to be an effective sequence. Järvi brings no mean pathos to this lollipop, shot through with Hungarian inflections, if not quite matching the suavity of Herbert von Karajan’s famous account (also DG).

Equally swift is the Third Symphony, but here Järvi’s tempos are ideally suited to this most Classical of the cycle – a tribute to Schubert of luminous poise and eloquence. The opening Allegro may not be ‘molto moderato’, but its deftly contrasted themes yield expressive unity intensified (after the exposition repeat) by its tensile development then surging coda. What follows is an Adagio in mood rather than pacing, a sustained intermezzo whose crepuscular harmonies and yearning central span have tangible ambivalence. Not so the Scherzo, with its vaunting outer sections and wistfully elegant Trio. Järvi rightly views the Finale’s speculative Lento introduction as the work’s only truly ‘slow’ music; after it, the Allegro brings impetus and no little nonchalance as it pursues a determined course to the tersely affirmative ending.

Whatever its relative familiarity, the Fourth Symphony remains a challenge in integrating its four movements into an unbroken yet cumulative whole. Järvi sets an ideal tempo for the first of them, its elegiac trumpet theme no less intently wrought than that for strings proceeding it. After developmental upheavals, the Adagio’s ineffable cello melody heads inexorably to the work’s emotional apex with its funereal tread then gently consoling coda. Momentum picks up naturally going into the agile Scherzo with its capering demeanour and blithe indifference of its Trios to a catastrophe that, when it arrives, proves as shocking as it is unexpected. From here, the music retraces its steps via horns and woodwind for a reprise which Järvi ensures is informed by the pain of experience – Itself distilled into acceptance with the inward postlude.

How to sum up? Save for a slightly under-characterised Second, Järvi has the firm measure of this music and secures consistently fine playing from the orchestra of which he was principal conductor during 2006-13, aided by decent sound and succinct booklet notes by Adam Gellen. Rajter’s insights are undermined by indifferent playing, and Luisi’s broader tempos can be too much so, while Sinaisky’s sympathetic readings all feature one of Schmidt’s shorter orchestral pieces. Those who favour a Järvi in these Symphonies will find that Paavo is the one to go for.

En dold symfonisk skatt

Per Nylén

Franz Schmidt: Symfonier 1-4 & Intermezzo ur Notre Dame
hr-Sinfonieorchester Frankfurt
Dirigent: Paavo Järvi
Deutsche Grammophon 4838336 [3 CD]

Den österrikiske symfonikern Franz Schmidts (1874-1939) verk har aldrig tillhört standardrepertoaren, även om han har haft sina förkämpar genom åren, som exempelvis den orkester han själv tillhörde som cellist under många år, Wiener Philharmoniker. Även om de tre första symfonierna förhållandevis sällan spelas, så har den fjärde och sista alltmer börjat framföras i konsertsalarna, t.ex. i Stockholm härom året.

På skiva är dock Schmidts symfonier relativt flitigt representerade och finns inspelade komplett av Neeme Järvi (Chandos), Fabio Luisi (Querstand), Vasilij Sinajskij (Naxos) och Ludovit Rajter (Opus Records). Nu har Paavo Järvi – i sin far Neemes fotspår – också spelat in dessa senromantiska verk komplett med Frankfurts radiosymfoniker som han ledde under många år men som han numera är hedersdirigent för. Överraskande nog är det här första gången någonsin som Deutsche Grammophon spelar in en Schmidtsymfoni på skiva.

Dessa verk som har ett spann på ett fyrtiotal år känns på många sätt som en sammanfattning av den österrikiska-tyska symfoniska traditionen – här kan du hitta såväl former från barocken, som influenser från Beethoven, Brahms och Bruckner, allt kryddat med en dos ungersk sälta. Kompositören hade just ungerskt påbrå och föddes i Pozsony – dagens slovakiska Bratislava – i det mångkulturella habsburgska riket.

Paavos Järvis entusiasm för dessa verk är påtaglig och orkestern lyckas genomgående ge musiken både den kraft och klarhet den behöver. När jag lyssnar får jag känslan av att symfonierna ofta är oerhört svårspelade, eftersom så mycket hela tiden händer i orkestern med en sådan rikedom i nyanser och av komplexa strukturer. Framförandena av de tre första symfonierna är dessutom väldigt imponerande och bland de bästa jag hört hittills, där speciellt den storslagna tvåan också sticker ut rent musikaliskt, även om den schubertskt lyriska trean också har många förtjänster, precis som den ungdomliga första, skriven när kompositören endast var 22 år gammal.

Schmidts stora symfoniska mästerverk är den fjärde från 1933 som borde vara en del av standardrepertoaren. Få verk börjar så suggestivt som den med en ödslig trumpet som sorgligt betraktar livet, ett tema som sedan återkommer också i fjärde och sista satsen. Verket andas en melankoli och uppgivenhet som lever kvar länge i ens sinne efteråt – en koncentrerad, lyrisk och inåtvänd stämning som du inte glömmer i första taget. Paavo Järvi och hans tyska orkester tar också väl vara på allt detta i denna nya inspelning.

Genomgående i samtliga verk – även Schmidts mest kända “hit”, intermezzot ur operan Notre Dame – är både tolkningarna, orkesterspelet och ljudbilden i toppklass. Som jag ser det, är det här du som lyssnare bör starta om du vill bekanta dig med dessa personliga symfonier. Lägg dessutom till antingen Franz Welser-Mösts (Warner) eller Zubin Mehtas (Decca) inspelning av fyran så har du en god grund att stå.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Heureuses retrouvailles de Gil Shaham avec le public à la Philharmonie

Sylvain Gaulhiac

Si l'Orchestre de Paris a fait sa rentrée il y a déjà quelques semaines au sein cette période incertaine, c'est ce soir pour une bonne partie du public des retrouvailles avec cet orchestre ainsi qu'avec la Philharmonie. Ce plaisir retrouvé est aussi celui du violoniste Gil Shaham, qui après son concerto nous annonce de son sourire radieux que c’est ce soir sa première apparition devant un public depuis le début de la crise sanitaire, et nous offre en guise de bis l’Isolation Rag, reçu par mail de son ami compositeur Scott Wheeler pendant le confinement de New York. Retour sur ce concert de l’Orchestre de Paris initialement prévu sous la baguette de Tugan Sokhiev, qui s’est finalement déroulé sous celle de Paavo Järvi, avec quelques musiciens masqués, aucun entracte, et un programme légèrement modifié autour de Tchaïkovski, Debussy et Ravel.

Déclaré « injouable » par son premier dédicataire en raison de ses difficultés techniques, le Concerto pour violon en ré majeur de Tchaïkovski jouit d’une renommée sans pareille et ne cesse de séduire par son lyrisme organique et sincère. Au violon, Gil Shaham vibre de la sincérité requise. Fidèle à lui-même, l’implication et la passion avec lesquelles il aborde la musique sont touchantes, totales, et rien ne vaut l’éclat de ses yeux plein de malice cherchant, interrogeant et sollicitant sans trêve la complicité du chef. Il va même à maintes reprises jusqu’à s’approcher à presque un mètre de Paavo Järvi, afin d’affiner au mieux le dialogue. Gil Shaham n’est jamais dans l’esquive, ne se dissimule devant rien et endosse la responsabilité de chaque note et du dessin de toute phrase, leur injectant une nécessité vitale. Il sait ainsi s’arrêter sur chaque son pour lui prêter l’attention qu’il mérite, il sait faire sonner de toute sa chaleur son Stradivarius (Comtesse Polignac de 1699), et à la virtuosité, dont il ne met jamais en avant la performance, il ne sacrifie ni la richesse du son, ni sa couleur ou sa lumière. L’extrême vocalité que son violon incarne dans l’« Andante » se déploie tout naturellement, semblant émaner d’une authenticité de sentiments sans nul artifice. Saluons la finesse de dentelle et l‘élégance des trilles égrainés par le violon à la fin de sa cadence.

Le dialogue avec l’orchestre est irréprochable, Paavo Järvi et Gil Shaham semblent être sur la même longueur d’onde, l’un sachant tempérer momentanément ses ardeurs pour laisser celles de l’autre s’exprimer avec plus l’exaltation, ou tous deux se répondant, s’équilibrant, se soutenant selon une entente jamais mise en défaut. Le dialogue, chambriste à souhait dans l’« Andante », devient un véritable engouement frénétique de tous les musiciens dans le dernier mouvement « Allegro vivacissimo » jusqu’à l’accélération vers l’irrésistible péroraison.

La deuxième partie du concert est dédiée à la musique française que l’orchestre connaît sur le bout des doigts : La Mer de Debussy, programmée dès le concert inaugural de l’Orchestre de Paris le 14 novembre 1967, et la deuxième suite d'orchestre de Daphnis et Chloé de Ravel, au programme de la phalange symphonique dès 1968. Paavo Järvi connaît parfaitement l’orchestre dont il a été directeur musical pendant six ans, il sait comment l’agripper pour en extraire les larges spectres de couleurs, la ductilité rythmique et la souplesse de timbres qu’exigent de telles œuvres. Il s’attelle à la tâche sans ciller, par des gestes efficaces et une intelligence musicale qui sait allier l’art des coloris et des évocations poétiques à l’équilibre délicat entre l’imprévisibilité rythmique de Debussy ou de la bacchanale ravélienne, et le sens de l’architecture. Saluons la chaleur des altos et la qualité du pupitre des bois, notamment des flûtes, qui nous offrent des moments sublimes, comme dans le « Dialogue du vent et de la mer » où elles s’expriment par mélismes suggestifs sur les méandres des harpes et les filigranes des cordes.

Ce concert (avec celui du jeudi) est le dernier de l’altiste Ana Bela Chaves qui prend sa retraite après quarante ans de loyaux services au poste de premier alto solo de l’Orchestre de Paris. De nombreux témoignages de ses collègues et amis figurent sur plus de six pages du programme papier distribué, rendant un hommage vibrant à sa personnalité et à son investissement au sein de l’orchestre, saluant, comme le fait l'altiste Sophie Divin, « une personne profondément humaine et une artiste formidable », qui a « défendu son pupitre bec et ongles, en toutes circonstance ; toujours juste et d'une fiabilité à toute épreuve ».

Tonhalle-Orchester – Paavo Järvi in lockdown

Colin's Column
Guest Writer, Ateş Orga

Twelve months ago I was in Zürich covering the inaugural concert of Paavo Järvi as Chief Conductor and Music Director of the venerable Tonhalle Orchestra. A responsive, world-class band under youthfully motivated management. Discerning repertory – Sibelius’s Kullervo. In Järvi the most sympathetic, approachable and responsible of conductors. The ideal music man for our times.

The 2020 pandemic has brought seismic change. Concerts continue but differently, with webcasts and live-streaming not so much an occasional luxury as a way of life, (mostly) reduced forces physically distanced, and limited audiences (or none) par for the course. Tuning in to music-making hundreds, thousands, of miles away. Sound engineers and cameramen, producers and directors, technology in the spotlight. Virtuality. Bubble culture. Webcams. It’s all strangely hermetic. Music is a socially interactive experience. What do performers, listeners do at the end of a performance – wait awkwardly for applause that never comes, bow self-consciously amongst themselves, clap before a screen for no one to hear, wander off aimlessly? I admire the tenacity, the positivity, the exchanged smiles of players refusing to throw in the towel, whatever the catastrophic stresses surrounding them – personal, professional, financial. I value the innovative, artist- rather than audience-led, programming that’s surfaced in many quarters. One unexpected bonus has been the return of silence where it matters, within the page. But I miss the contact, the adrenalin charge of concert nights, the emotional and intellectual exchange of the hour. A glass of wine, a bustling bar, good company sets the moment, excites expectations, gets a buzz going like nothing else. Virus, restriction and lockdown aware as I am, deprived of that, of what historical praxis, ancient to modern, has ingrained into the human condition, comes at a psychological price.

Back in June the Tonhalle Orchestra filmed several concerts in their substitute concert room in the Tonhalle Maag, a makeshift space while their old home, the lakeside Tonhalle, is being restored. “In intensive discussions with Paavo Järvi, we selected works that we do not play regularly and that were surprisingly exciting for many, not only in the composition of the programmes, but also as a listening experience in a hall with a maximum of 250 people and a maximum of 40 musicians on stage.” At the time I accessed a riveting salt-and-silk Stravinsky Dumbarton Oaks and Strauss Le bourgeois gentilhomme (June 25). Two concerts from the weekend before have now been newly released. For strings: Sibelius’s Rakastava, Opus 14 (plus timpani and triangle) coupled with Dvořák’s E-major Serenade, Opus 22 (June 19). For woodwind: Richard Strauss’s early E-flat Wind Serenade, Opus 7, and Dvořák’s D-minor Serenade, Opus 44 (June 20). There’s well-bred, fabulously special playing here, Järvi’s way with Dvořák – Bohemian warmth and rubatowith a splash of Baltic water – having always appealed. Lyricism, richness of melody, a rugged facade in the Wind Serenade, Indian summer sunshine in the earlier String one, make for a wonderful late nineteenth-century panorama, rurality touched with urbanity.

I grew up with István Kertész’s LSO Decca account of the former, recorded in Kingsway Hall in May 1968. The players were never individually credited, though programme listings from the period, Philip Stuart reminds me, would suggest Roger Lord (oboe) and Gervase de Peyer (clarinet), possibly Barry Tuckwell (first horn), as well as Nelson Cooke (cello) and Stuart Knussen (bass). What a halcyon sound and chemistry they created. Nurtured and shaped, the ensemble left to its own pedigree voice and say, Järvi’s third movement, neither too Andante nor too con moto, takes me back. How clarinet and oboe phrase, balance and blend the opening is one of the make-or-break tests of this score. No question can be asked of Michael Reid or Simon Fuchs, backstays of the Tonhalle for more than thirty years. Connoisseur musicianship and fellow understanding of the highest level, tearfully beautiful. Makes you want to fall in love all over again.

Sibelius & Dvořák https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVeGTlNtEMI&t=2351s

Strauss & Dvořák https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3fs1yu0qk4&t=622s


Review: Franz Schmidt – Complete Symphonies – Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi

The Classic Review
David A. McConnell

Deutsche Gramophone, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Paavo Järvi deserve whole-hearted praise for releasing a new Franz Schmidt symphony cycle. There are only two others widely available (though others were recorded), one with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra led by Vassily Sinaisky (Naxos) and the other, led by Paavo’s father Neeme, with the Detroit (Nos. 1 and 4) and Chicago (Nos. 2 and 3) Symphony Orchestras (Chandos).

Sadly, these wonderful late Romantic works remain underrated. In recent years, appreciation of other fin-de-siècle composers such as Alexander Zemlinsky and Erich Korngold, has grown because of a steady stream of new recordings. The same has not happened for Schmidt. While one occasionally hears allusions to the music of Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner and Strauss, Schmidt nevertheless has an individual and powerful voice. This new cycle ensures that voice is clearly heard.
Lyricism and Tragedy

Schmidt completed his first symphony in 1899, and it is the most conventional of the four. The first movement immediately reveals his love of lyricism and lush orchestration. The second symphony followed in 1913, more intensely chromatic, and with greater harmonic audacity. Notable too is the second movement’s form: variations on a theme, in which the final variations (Nos. 9 and 10) serve as the “third movement” scherzo and trio, a wholly original innovation.

Written in 1927-29 and dedicated to the Vienna Philharmonic, the third symphony is perhaps the sunniest (utilizing the smallest orchestration) of the cycle. The work was a prize by the Columbia Gramophone Company of New York for following “in the spirit of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.” While a clear link to Schubertian style is debatable, it is a gentle and cheerful work, showing Schmidt’s fascination with “developing variation” (which arguably brings the music closer to Brahms than Schubert!).

Schmidt’s “Symphony No. 4 in C Major” is widely acknowledged as his finest symphony. It is certainly the most overtly emotional: in 1932 Schmidt’s daughter Emma died in childbirth, leading to Schmidt’s own complete breakdown. Intended as a requiem for Emma, Schmidt’s grief is evident in the symphony’s intense chromaticism and moody, pessimistic mood. The first movement opens with a long trumpet solo, which reappears in each throughout the work as a unifying motive. The four movements are played as one continuous movement.
The New Recording

The new reading of Symphony No. 1 is a highlight of the set. Sample the first minute: stentorian horns, powering over ascending arpeggios of strings, answered by a gorgeous, melancholic melody. The tempo then changes to Allegro, announcing a first theme that is very much a distant cousin of Strauss’s “Don Juan.” The entire symphony has an impressive symphonic sweep. DG’s sound is ideal: analytical but warm, its deep and wide soundstage allowing us to revel in Schmidt’s opulent orchestral colors. Paavo’s tempo is slower and steadier than his father’s in Detroit (who sounds brusque in comparison) and Sinaisky in Malmo. The extra time generates a nobility not heard in the other two recordings, and the Frankfort horn section is simply magnificent, especially in the final moments of the coda.

Comparisons of the second movement complicate matters. Schmidt’s long-breathed melodies and vivid wind writing (especially around 3’10”) draw us into a Wagnerian magical forest. Paavo conjures a rarified atmosphere of fragile stillness and hushed reverence, whereas his father seems to ride through the forest hardly noticing his surroundings. Sinaisky also creates the right atmosphere, but playing of his Malmö orchestra, fine though it is, cannot match the sophisticated luster heard in Frankfort.

Neeme Järvi suddenly snaps to life in movement 3, using a generous amount of rubato to draw out the music’s playful humor. Paavo’s more sober outlook instead draws attention to the music’s similarity to Bruckner. All three performances feature excellent readings of the last movement, though Detroit has one or two momentary lapses of ensemble. The Frankfurt RSO plays with impressive unanimity and vivid personality, and Paavo is masterful in the final minutes (track 4, 7’50”), ensuring the dynamics and energy continually build into a release of celebratory power. While there is much to admire in Sinaisky’s emotional reading, and Neeme’s third movement is special, it is Paavo who leads the most impressive and cohesive reading.

In the second and third symphonies, Järvi Sr., leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is thoroughly engaged, and the Chicago play with inspired fervency. Sample the first climax of the opening movement (Paavo at 0’52”/Neeme at 0’50”). The Frankfurt RSO makes a powerful and majestic sound, but Chicago’s playing has a thrilling intensity. Both Neeme and Paavo mine a great amount of detail from the secondary voices, while ensuring the music’s many transitions and harmonic progressions have an organic inevitability.

Sinaisky in Malmo and Bychkov in Vienna are slower, and in both performances, there are moments when the music loses forward momentum. In the slow movement, Neeme again takes a significant amount of freedom in shaping the phrases. Again, as good as the Frankfurt RSO is, the playing in Chicago is peerless. Some might feel the Chicago brass are overly prominent, but their sound is stupendous, and never has the harshness they often had under Solti.

The third symphony’s lighter mood plays to Paavo’s interpretative strengths. His reading, more nuanced than his father’s, uncovers a kaleidoscopic range of colors and textures. The gossamer delicacy of the woodwinds throughout is a highlight, especially in the slow movement (CD 3, track 3, 4’36”). Järvi Sr. is also impressive, but more generalized: colors are fuller, oil colors brushed in broad strokes, with a correspondingly weightier sound. Sinaisky is quite beautiful but substantially slower, again to the music’s detriment. Paavo’s reading has a light, supple grace that is most beguiling.
Wealth of Orchestral Details

Any new performance of the fourth symphony comes up against Mehta’s 1970’s Vienna Philharmonic recording, in which the richness of the playing is wedded to acute awareness of the tragedy behind the notes. The opening trumpet solo is grief-stricken, and the principal cello (Schmidt’s instrument when he played in this orchestra) is touching eloquent in his many solos. The cataclysmic disintegration in the slow movement (track 2, beginning at 7’45”) is devastating. Similarly distinguished is Sinaisky, his overtly emotional approach particularly well suited to this work.

In comparison, Paavo is more emotionally reticent, but the Frankfurt orchestra’s sound and execution are magnificent, revealing a wealth of orchestral details. The work’s destructive climaxes are still deeply emotional: listen to the Molto Vivace (CD 3, track 7), in which the music suggests Schmidt has finally come to a renewed happiness, only to have it torn away (6’25”).

This is certainly an impressive achievement for Paavo Järvi and the Frankfurt RSO. The one filler, the “Intermezzo” from Schmidt’s opera “Notre Dame,” is lovely, but it would have been better to hear these performers in another of the major, less well known, works. Hopefully, we might hear more Schmidt from these performers in the future.

Excepting the Chicago/Chandos performances, these are certainly the best engineered recordings of the cycle. This incredible music deserves and benefits from different interpretive views. Any lover of late-Romantic music will want this set, supplementing it with Neeme Järvi’s second and Zubin Mehta’s fourth. But if forced to choose only one cycle, this would now be a primary recommendation.

FRANZ SCHMIDT - Complete Symphonies

MusicWeb International
Stephen Greenbank

Between 1989 and 1996, Neeme Järvi recorded the four symphonies of Franz Schmidt for Chandos. This traversal got the positive thumbs up from my colleague Rob Barnett, who enthusiastically lauded it as “a connoisseur’s choice” back in 2009. Now, Järvi’s son Paavo has waded in with his own cycle, this time with live performances for the DG label. The orchestra is the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, and the recordings were set down between 2013 and 2018.

My introduction to this corpus dates back about twenty years to Ľudovít Rajter’s set for the Opus label. It holds the distinction of being the first complete recorded cycle. Although the Radio Bratislava Symphony Orchestra is no match for the orchestras in the recordings above, it’s worth pointing out that Rajter was acquainted with the composer, and one gets a sense of performances born out of love and affection for the music. There’s another cycle by Vassily Sinaisky on Naxos which, unfortunately, I haven’t heard. In addition, there have been a number of single symphony recordings worthy of attention. Most notable for me is the Second Symphony performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under the inspirational baton of Semyon Bychkov on Sony – a wonderful reading (review).

It’s given me great encouragement to see an emerging interest and revival in Schmidt’s music over recent years. In addition to the symphonies, there are two operas: Notre Dame and Fredigundis, an Oratorio: The Book with Seven Seals, chamber music, and some solo piano and organ works. He seemed happiest working mainly in large monumental structures, embracing 19th century forms and developing the traditions he inherited from Schubert, Brahms and Bruckner, in deference to an Austro-German lineage. His music is firmly tonal, yet rhythmically daring and harmonically adventurous. His life had its fair share of tragedy. His wife was committed to a mental institution and later murdered in 1942 as part of the Nazi’s euthanasia program, and his daughter Emma died after giving birth to her first child.

Schmidt was in his early 20s when he penned the four-movement First Symphony, and it certainly pandered to the conservative tastes of the Viennese public of the day. This fledgling work won the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde’s Beethoven Prize in September 1900. The following January, the composer conducted the premiere. For me, the work is saturated with echoes of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Wagner, and the melodies flow aplenty. Järvi basks in the radiant warmth of the second movement Langsam, and brings some light-hearted cheeriness to the scherzo-like movement which follows.

Over ten years separates the First Symphony from Schmidt’s next venture into the genre. For this newcomer, he pulled all the stops out, and the result is a prodigious orchestral canvas, scored for huge orchestral forces and longer in duration than any of its companions. It presents a formidable challenge to any orchestra. This time it’s Richard Strauss and Max Reger, with a peppering of Bruckner, who are abiding influences. If I were asked to nominate my favorite movement of the four symphonies, it would be the opening movement of the Second. It has an alluring pastoral character, and it’s that gorgeous second subject theme which certainly takes some beating. The lush and lavish orchestral textures certainly register their impact in this masterfully engineered recording. The central movement of the three is a set of variations. The finale resorts back to a bucolic demeanour. Towards the closing measures, Schmidt builds up his forces to a tumultuous climax.

The Third Symphony dates from 1928. It took second place in the 1928 Schubert Centennial Contest; Atterberg’s Sixth grabbed the premier slot. It draws inspiration from Mendelssohn, Strauss and Dvorák. The first movement is pastoral in its lyrical melodies. The slow movement is a set of variations, both gloomy and dark. A charming Scherzo follows and provides the perfect vehicle to showcase the colourful Frankfurt woodwinds. These, together with the horns, intone a chorale at the start of the finale. Järvi carefully builds up the pace as the movement progresses, surfing the shifting moods with a true sense of direction and purpose.

Completed in 1933, the Symphony No. 4 in C major is the crowning achievement of Schmidt’s symphonic oeuvre, and is one of the greatest Symphonies of the 20th century. I mentioned earlier that the composer lost his daughter to a postpartum infection, so he channeled all of his grief and sorrow into this “Requiem for my daughter”. This deep sense of tragedy and loss permeates this tremendously evocative reading, cast within a Brucknerian spaciousness. The Frankfurt strings emit sympathetic warmth, which I find consoling and deeply personal. The solo cello, Schmidt’s own instrument as an orchestral player, opens the second movement with desolation and melancholy. It’s only in the third movement that the sun comes out and the mood lightens. Järvi’s management of the transparent orchestral textures in the finale is breathtaking as he steers us back to the doleful lament of the opening.

The filler for CD 2 is the brief Intermezzo from the opera Notre Dame. An uplifting gem, it’s pleasantly lyrical and truly captivating.

Comparing the cycles of father and son, tempi don’t appear to be wildly different, and the playing on both the Chandos and DG sets is exceptional by any standards. However, I have to say that I have an overall preference for this new release with Paavo Järvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. The sound has an added glow and depth, and there is greater definition and potency. So, it goes to the top of my list of recommendations for this symphonic cycle.

Paavo Järvi records Franz Schmidt’s Four Symphonies in Frankfurt for Deutsche Grammophon.

Colin's Column

Paavo Järvi is following in his father Neeme’s footsteps who recorded Franz Schmidt’s Four Symphonies in Chicago and Detroit for Chandos. (Other complete Schmidt cycles are available.)

It’s wonderful repertoire, which the Frankfurt Radio Symphony now does proud, especially the absorbing masterpiece that is No.4 (C-major, 1933), introduced to most of us, I imagine, by Zubin Mehta’s 1972 Vienna Philharmonic LP (Decca SXL 6544), which has gone on to enjoy at least two CD transfers, music that has since been championed by such as Kirill Petrenko, Franz Welser-Möst and the late Yakov Kreizberg. It might be heard as a musically transformative work – it plays continuously (forty-five minutes from Järvi, Mehta adds a few more) and is bookended by a lonely trumpet solo (sensitively intoned by Balázs Nemes) – as well as autobiographical, so deeply expressive, nowhere more so than in the elegiac Adagio section introduced by a cello (Schmidt’s own instrument, here eloquently rendered by Peter-Philipp Staemmler, who is placed centrally given Järvi has the violins seated antiphonally, appositely) of some of the most-sublime, tear-jerking and transcending music ever written – beyond words and haunting the listener for a lifetime. From there to a lively Molto vivace section (reporting happier times, maybe) – I wonder on how many occasions I turned over Mehta’s LP at this point: CD of course allows no such fracturing of what is a cyclical one-movement structure – music that dances exuberantly while being contrapuntally exacting, leading to a tortured climax and a final part (cued here by notable Frankfurt horn contributions, solo and ensemble) that looks back – this is a Symphony in which everything connects.

Schmidt (1874-1939), Austrian if with Hungarian parents and born in what today is Bratislava, by profession an orchestral cellist in Vienna (he played for Mahler) and who was also a fine pianist – and an impressive composer.

The Symphonies that precede No.4 (which expresses Schmidt’s innermost feelings to an unsettling degree yet also giving solace) are no-less engaging.

No.3 (A-major, 1928), here coupled with the Fourth on an eighty-five-minute disc, opens in pastoral fashion and in a manner that reminds of Carl Nielsen. It’s an elegantly light piece, beautifully proportioned across four movements, the second being a rapturous Adagio, the third a perky Scherzo.

Symphony 2 (E-flat, 1913) is in three movements, the middle one an ingenious set of Variations that embraces a Scherzo and Trio. The first movement is optimistic and lucidly scored (despite the orchestra being large) whereas the Finale is initially slow – during which breezes waft and ultimately secure a full-sail homeward-bound conclusion, sonorous brass to the fore.

Schmidt’s debut Symphony (E-major, 1896), rich in romanticism and storytelling powers, has a superb first movement – grandiose, dashing, ardent (and an exposition repeat) –, a slow one of forest-murmurs and ecstatic beauty, then a Scherzo of rustic vitality, a lolloping waltz-like country-dance contrasted with a Trio of reverie. The Finale is an amiable affair formally attired, not least fugally, and which grows to a big finish.

Should Schmidt’s Symphonies be unfamiliar, they should appeal to admirers of the music of Bruckner, Mahler, Reger and Richard Strauss. Paavo Järvi clearly believes in their considerable worth and conducts them accordingly. Recorded between 2013 and 2018, the sound is very good if a little edgy in the loudest passages, but that is an insignificant caveat given the compositional and interpretative artistry on offer. DG 483 8336 (3 CDs).


The show goes on as the Tonhalle Orchestra launches its new season

Sarah Batschelet

It was something almost out of a sci-fi film: concert-goers shuffling by in surgical face masks, spaces between parties like the distance between towels on the beach. But hats off to the Tonhalle Maag for the corona-specific directives it has rigorously adopted. Given the unpredictable virus, it was a privilege to hear the Tonhalle Orchestra perform at all. And to start the evening’s concert, Executive Director Ilona Schmiel thanked the audience warmly for both its faith in the hall’s rigorous protection plan and its unwavering optimism.

As the Tonhalle’s “Creative Chair 2019-20” Estonian composer Arvo Pärt was unable to join the opening concert of the season owing to quarantine restrictions, but his contemplative La Sidone was first on the programme, and marked the work’s Swiss premiere. The nine-minute, largely mystical work bears the Italian title of the Shroud of Turin, in which many believe the dead Christ was laid in the tomb, so questions around death and resurrection are inherent to its interpretation. Originally written in 2006, Pärt’s newer version (2019) features a solo violin, played here by the Tonhalle’s fine first concertmaster, Andreas Janke, whose musical expression was consistently hallmarked by a clean line above the weave of the orchestra. Indeed, his violin asked questions, sometimes even countered what the other players “said”. Close to the piece’s ending, a long silence was followed by a cataclysmic explosion of the timpani and horns, then followed, in turn, by a complete resolve and sense of peace, almost like the staid image of the shroud, and Pärt’s reduction of the sound spectrum to its very essence makes his work all the more compelling. "Arvo Pärt is a living legend. The idea of bringing him here as Creative Chair has less to do with the fact that we are both Estonians than with the fact that he is a great composer, one of the last remaining giants," says Paavo Järvi, the Tonhalle’s Chief Conductor.

In Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major that followed, German pianist Lars Vogt stepped in for Olli Mustonen, detained by corona travel restrictions. Vogt seemed entirely at home, however, even in a few moments of his interpretation that seemed to prefigure the Jazz era. He began the Allegro first movement with its requisite calm, even tenderness, while later, in the increasingly animated and exuberant passages, his sounds were occasionally somewhat murky, given the exaggerated frequency of the pedal. In the middle movement Andante, which sets the piano against the dark powers of the strings, he played interventions with terrific energy and assurance, clearly fully enjoying the drama of being pitted against the whole orchestra, and even ducking slightly on the bench before one turbulent string entrance. At the end of the Rondo, the third and final movement, and having mastered the legion of demands on his fingering, Vogt showed himself a showman again, his arms raised high like a man in the glare of police headlights. The music’s bombast having more or less spoken for itself, his gesture simply served dramatic effect, but it’s theatricality was infectious.

That said, the assurance that the Tonhalle Maag is committed to music as fine as this, while carefully observing corona restrictions, was an encouraging sign, and the audience showed its enthusiasm with resounding applause. It was no surprise, when leaving the hall, to overhear another concert-goer’s remark, “If anybody can play the Fourth Concerto, then it’s Lars Vogt.” Indeed.