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.