Franz SCHMIDT (1873 – 1939)
Symphony No.4 in C (1933/1934) [46:22]
Variations on a Hussar’s Song (1930) [28:28]
Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Vasily Sinaisky
rec. 26, 31 May 2008 (Symphony), 4-5 June 2009 (Variations), Malmö Concert Hall, Malmö. DDD
NAXOS 8.572118 [75:02]

And so we come to the final instalment of Vasily Sinaisky’s complete recordings of the Franz Schmidt Symphonies. It’s a set which, despite Sinaisky being faithful to the scores, has failed to take flight. The works do not emerge in their best light, the 2nd and 3rd Symphonies being underachieved in Sinaisky’s interpretations.

The 4th is not just Schmidt’s greatest symphonic achievement, it’s one of the greatest Symphonies of the 20th century. In his 3rd Symphony, Schmidt gave a suggested playing time of some 50 minutes, which Sinaisky achieves, but this proves to be too slow. Most performances take about 44 minutes and at this duration the music really flows. For the 4th he suggests 46 minutes - any slower and the music fails to work. Most will have learnt the work from Zubin Mehta’s 1971 Decca recording of the work with the Vienna Philharmonic (still available on 430 007–2, coupled with Schönberg’s 1st Chamber Symphony with members of the LA Philharmonic and with Mahler 2 on Decca 440 615-2). Mehta was slightly too slow and thus the finely structured proportions of the music were wrong. The best recording, and thus the touchstone for all recorded performances of this work, is Rudolf Moralt’s 1955 recording with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. The Moralt is now available on Naxos 9.80262 (download only) and this is a must for everyone interested in this work for, as an interpretation, it is unsurpassed. In 1994, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a performance of the work with the BBC Philharmonic under Adrian Leaper which was just about perfect, but I don’t believe that it’s ever been repeated. I wish that the BBC would think the Leaper worthy of putting on CD, even a free one given away with the BBC Music Magazine would be gratefully received.

So what of Sinaisky? This is certainly the best interpretation of the four Symphonies in this series, but it still leaves me wanting more. The orchestral playing is excellent, and even though Sinaisky understands the music I don’t feel any cumulative growth throughout the piece, so that by the time the opening idea returns it’s just the opening idea returning, we don’t feel as if we’ve been on a big, life-changing, journey. It’s all so nonchalant, bland even, and it’s the lack of drama and passion which gives this impression. The prime example of this is the moment, at the end of the scherzo section, where the music explodes into screaming mayhem – just before the horns, in harmony, start to rebuild the world and bring about a musical recapitulation – except that here it doesn’t. There’s a storm in a teacup but that’s about it, nothing apocryphal, no devastation. Life goes on without worries. Likewise the lyrical moments, which really soar, are here firmly rooted to the ground. Ultimately the whole performance fails to elevate because the reading is too literal, and nowhere does it leave me breathless with awe, excitement and amazement. Barbirolli would have done this music proud had he ever had the chance to conduct it, for this period was right up his street – think of his Strauss, Mahler and Bruckner.

Better one goes to the Moralt recording on Naxos or, if a more modern recording is required, Yakov Kreizberg with the Netherlands Philharmonic give a fine performance. Kreizberg’s interpretation is borne out of live performances in Europe and America. I have a recording of a live performance he directed with the Cincinnati Symphony, in 2003, which is stunning – so he has a deeper understanding, not to mention a real working knowledge, of the work than most (Pentatone FTC 5186 015 – coupled with three excerpts from Schmidt’s early opera Notre Dame).

The Variations on a Hussar’s Song receives a similar literal, and earthbound, performance. I simply cannot be bothered with it. Franz Welser–Möst’s performance with the London Philharmonic, coupled with Schmidt’s 4th Symphony, is unavailable at present, is worth having, if you can find it (EMI Classics originally 7243 5 55516 25 and more recently 94635 56922). If you are looking for a truly idiomatic performance then turn to the Vienna Philharmonic under Knappertsbusch, from 1957. That recording is coupled with a 1959 Salzburg Festival performance of Schmidt’s great oratorio Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln under Mitropoulos, with Anton Dermota, Fritz Wunderlich and Hilde Güden, amongst others (Andromeda ANDRCD9067).

As you can see, there are better versions of both works elsewhere and those interpretations will repay repeated hearings and tell you much more about the music than these.

Bob Briggs

There are better versions of both works elsewhere.