Franz SCHMIDT (1874 - 1939)
Symphony No.2 in E (1911/1913) [48:59]
Fuga solemnis (1937) [14:00]
Anders Johnsson (organ)
Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Vassily Sinaisky
rec. 28 May - 1 June 2007 (Symphony), Malmö Concert Hall, Malmö and 24 - 25 August 2007 (Fuga), St Petri Church, Malmö DDD
NAXOS 8.570589 [63:09]

Schmidt’s symphonic canon really gets going with this magnificent 2nd Symphony. Indeed, it is hard to believe that this is the work of the same man who wrote the rather derivative 1st Symphony. The twelve years that separate these works obviously helped Schmidt hone his style and focus his musical thoughts. This 2nd Symphony is a real tour de force; three large movements, of which the second is a theme and variations which incorporates a slow movement and scherzo and trio. It’s not an easy work to bring off in performance for it is thickly scored and there is much counterpoint.

The Fuga solemnis for organ, sixteen wind instruments and percussion is Schmidt’s final work for organ - the organ and the orchestra were the two media through which he spoke fluently and eloquently - and it is a magnificent achievement. You’d be forgiven for assuming that this work is an organ solo; the ensemble doesn’t join in until after half the piece has been played and then Schmidt works out his material between the keyboard and wind.

Sinaisky chooses very good tempi for the Symphony and he certainly has a firm grasp on the structure of the work. He draws excellent playing from his orchestra, the brass is rich and sonorous, the strings resplendent, the wind colourful and full of song. The recording, which is very immediate, is perhaps a trifle too hard-faced, I would have welcomed some space between me and the orchestra; I don’t want to feel as if I am sitting next to the conductor on the podium. The recording of the Fuga solemnis is better in that it gives some feel of the room in which it was recorded, but then there are fewer players to contend with!

Part of me really wants to welcome this disk. It contains such a fine Symphony in a performance of some worth. I am afraid however that there is a but. Throughout I was conscious of something not being quite right with the interpretation. The performance is fine but after listening to it a couple of times I reached for a live version of Erich Leinsdorf and the Vienna Philharmonic playing this Symphony. The Leinsdorf recordng was made in the Großen Musikvereinssaal in 1983. Here we have the essence of Schmidt’s work, played by his own orchestra. It will be remembered that under Mahler Schmidt played in the cello section and was often favoured by Mahler to play the solos even though he didn’t lead the cellos. The Leinsdorf reading is in totally Viennese style under a Vienna-born conductor. There is a breadth of vision and the performance sits very comfortably with the orchestra With the Malmö players there is, on reflection, a touch of strain. The music doesn’t come as easily to them as it does to their colleagues in Vienna. Just listen to the restraint in the Austrian capital in the final chorale, held back and never overpowering. In Malmö it seems to take on a life of its own and overpower everything which stands in its way. The Vienna performance can be found in a three disk set called the Vienna Philharmonic Plays 20th Century Masterpieces. It is coupled with live performances of Berg, Honegger, Janáček, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Webern and Wellesz, under various conductors (Andante 4080). No other performance can match Leinsdorf. It surpasses all other recorded performances. However, as the Andante might be difficult to obtain I welcome this disk as a fine performance of Schmidt’s Second Symphony. It is acceptable as a stopgap. I have not heard Neeme Järvi’s Chandos recording with the Detroit Symphony (CHAN8779) and as part of a complete set of the Schmidt symphonies.

What will whet Schmidt enthusiasts’ appetites is the only recording of the Fuga solemnis currently available. At the price it’s worth the outlay.

Bob Briggs