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Franz SCHMIDT (1874-1939)
Complete Symphonies
Symphony No. 1 in E major (1896-9) [44:20]
Symphony No. 2 in E flat major (1911-2) [50:18]
Symphony No. 3 in A major (1927-8) [40:26]
Symphony No. 4 in C major (1932-3) [44:34]
Notre Dame: Intermezzo (1903) [4:40]
Frankfurt Radio Symphony/Paavo Järvi
rec. live, 2013-18, hr-Sedensaal, (1 & 2); Alte Oper (3, 4 & Intermezzo), Frankfurt
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4838336 [3 CDs: 180:43]

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.

Stephen Greenbank

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