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Franz SCHMIDT (1874-1939)
Symphony No. 2 in E flat (1913) [49.58]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Festival Prelude, Op. 61 (1913) [12.33]
Christoph Anselm Noll (organ: Strauss)
Beethoven Orchester Bonn/Stefan Blunier
rec. live, Beethovenhalle, Bonn, 13-14 May 2016
MDG 937 2006-6 SACD [62.33]

This disc couples two works premièred in Vienna within two months of each other in the autumn of 1913, both featuring the massive orchestras that were so fashionable at the time but which were to fall into disfavour in the more financially straitened times that followed the First World War. The Strauss Festliches Praeludium was commissioned to mark the dedication of the Vienna Konzerthaus, and in it the composer used the same gargantuan orchestra that he was later to employ in his Alpine Symphony, without the contingents of offstage brass and wind and thunder effects, but featuring a prominent role for organ. It is rarely heard nowadays, clearly because as a short work it does not fit easily into concert programmes which do not feature large romantic orchestras; but it is far from simply an occasional commemorative piece. The purposeful forward momentum of the music not only prefigures the symphony but also echoes the textures of Also sprach Zarathustra with its similarly prominent organ part, and it is given a spectacular performance here.

Schmidt’s Second Symphony is a more problematic piece, principally because of its somewhat unusual structure. The outer movements surround a long set of variations which combine the functions of a slow movement with a concluding scherzo, but the latter is somewhat brief for its context and we don’t really get the luscious slow movement that we also tend to expect in a Schmidt symphony. The sixth variation is however a real gem, a richly scored Langsam movement that recalls to mind the intermezzo for Schmidt’s Notre Dame, at one time the only piece by the composer that maintained his presence in the catalogues. One gets the feeling that it could have been even more ruhig (as marked) in this performance, but it still makes an emotional effect. And, as in the case of the Strauss, the sound is absolutely gorgeous (I listened in normal stereo).

There are five alternative versions of the Schmidt symphony listed in the current catalogues, which makes a welcome change from the paucity of the composer’s representation during the 1960s. One of these derives from a 1958 mono broadcast conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos, but the rest come in modern sound (which is needed for a score of this nature). Two others, conducted by Fabio Luisi and Neeme Järvi, come without coupling; but the addition here of the Strauss prelude is unique in the catalogue and a most welcome bonus (and the competition here is hardly thick on the ground either).

For those who have yet to make the acquaintance of these scores, this issue can be heartily recommended. These same forces have already recorded Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony, and one looks forward with anticipation to possible future releases of the even lesser-known First and Third.

Paul Corfield Godfrey


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