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Franz SCHMIDT (1874-1939)
Complete Symphonies
Symphony No. 1 in E major (1896-1899) [44:20]
Symphony No. 2 in E flat major (1911-1912) [50:18]
Symphony No. 3 in A major (1927-1928) [40:26]
Symphony No. 4 in C major (1932-1933) [44:34]
Notre Dame: Intermezzo (1903) [4:40]
Frankfurt Radio Symphony/Paavo Järvi
rec. live, March 2013 (2), March 2017 (1), hr-Sedensaal, Frankfurt; February 2014 (3), April 2018 (4 & Intermezzo), Alte Oper, Frankfurt.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4838336 [3 CDs: 180:43]

The Järvi family seems to have something of an affinity with the music of Franz Schmidt. Neeme Järvi recorded all four symphonies for Chandos in the 1990s. I bought three of them – missing out on No 4 - as single discs. When they were reissued, sans couplings, Rob Barnett gave them an enthusiastic welcome (review). Then in 2008, I think, Chandos issued a live recording, made in 2005 by Kristian Järvi of Schmidt’s choral/orchestral magnum opus, Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln. Once again, it fell to Rob Barnett to welcome the recording of that musical behemoth (review). Now Paavo Järvi has turned his attention to the symphonies. Järvi père recorded the symphonies with two orchestras: the Detroit Symphony (Nos 1 & 4) and the Chicago Symphony (Nos. 2 & 3). The first three were recorded live in concert. I can’t speak for No 4 but I think it’s a fair bet that this symphony also was set down in concert. Paavo has followed his father’s example: all his Schmidt recordings stem from concerts. He was Principal Conductor of the FRSO from 2006 to 2014 and the Second and Third symphonies were recorded at performances given during his tenure; he’s now their Conductor Laureate.

For the benefit of those who may be unfamiliar with Schmidt, it’s worth recounting a few brief biographical details. He was born in the city which is now named Bratislava. He studied in Vienna at the Conservatory and then spent 15 years playing as a cellist in the orchestra of what was then the Vienna Court Opera (now the Staatsoper). Then, as now, that orchestra had a concert life as the Vienna Philharmonic. From 1901 Schmidt also taught at the Conservatory and it was his promotion to the role of professor of piano – at a higher salary, I presume – in 1911 that enabled him to resign from the orchestra and focus for the rest of his life on composition and on teaching at the Conservatory, where he gradually rose up the ranks until he became Director in 1925. His composition teacher at the Conservatory was Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) and he also had a few lessons in counterpoint from Bruckner. I think it’s particularly relevant that Schmidt spent so long as an orchestral cellist; his knowledge of the symphony orchestra from the inside must have stood him in good stead as a symphonic composer.

His First Symphony was composed while he was still in the ranks of the Vienna orchestra though it was another orchestra, the orchestra of the Vienna Konzertverein (now the Vienna Symphony) that premiered the work in 1902 with the composer conducting. Even before the first performance the symphony had attracted attention: it was awarded the Beethoven Prize by the Gesselschaft der Musikfreunde in 1900. Listening to this fine performance under Paavo Järvi, I could well understand why Schmidt won the prize. It’s true that the music is conservative in hue; the shades of a number of composers, including Schubert, Brahms and Schumann hover over it, but the music has much to commend it. I like Järvi’s way with the confident first movement; he conveys both the sweep and the enthusiasm of the music. The second movement, Langsam, is mainly tranquil and has something of a pastoral feel. Especially pleasing, I think, is an episode between 3:11 and 4:22 where there’s some gorgeous writing for the horn section, their material punctuated and decorated by the woodwinds. Järvi conducts with warmth and his orchestra plays beautifully for him. The third movement is marked Schnell und leicht and the quality of lightness is well brought out in this attractive performance. I’m not sure if it’s specifically designated as a Trio, but the slow central section (5:16 - 8:15) certainly fulfils that function. It’s delivered delicately here. The finale is cheerful in tone and Schmidt runs through a number of compositional devices during its course, including a fugue which is pleasingly nimble. The symphony ends with a broad, optimistic coda.

Schmidt’s First is a symphonic debut of no little promise and it comes up well in this excellent performance. I couldn’t detect significant interpretative differences between Paavo’s rendition and that led by his father; there are different nuances here and there, of course. Listeners may find that the comparative difference lies more in the recorded sound. Both recordings are very good but DG’s sound is more up-front and rather closer than the Chandos sound for Neeme Järvi. The Chandos arguably conveys more of a concert hall perspective from the stalls; DG has the listener closer to the action. I can see merits in both approaches.

Schmidt began the Second Symphony in 1911 as soon as he’d finished his orchestral career. The premiere took place in December 1913. Again, the orchestra of the Vienna Konzertverein did the honours but this time Franz Schalk was on the rostrum. This is the only one of Schmidt’s symphonies that is not cast in four movements. In fact, its three-movement design is somewhat unconventional. The central movement is a Theme and Variations; there are 10 variations but the last two of these, which in this performance play for just under half the length of the movement, are labelled as a Scherzo and Trio. The orchestra that Schmidt deployed is considerably larger than for his First; indeed, the dimensions are positively Straussian, including five clarinets, eight horns and five trumpets. A wider range of percussion is also used.

Quite often in the first movement the orchestration is much more full-fat than was the case in the First. However, Schmidt handles his large forces with assurance: there are some very ripe passages. I find the movement more discursive than the comparable movement in the First. It’s very well played here. Once again, the interpretations of the two Järvis are not radically different from each other in the outer movements. However, in the middle movement Neeme Järvi is inclined to take some episodes a little more expansively than does his son and this accounts for the fact that the Chandos recording plays for 19:02 whereas the DG version comes in at 17:40. I must say I find Paavo Järvi very persuasive overall. As I said, there are 10 variations in all, some fast, some slow, and though it’s pretty clear where each one ends it would have been nice if DG – or Chandos, for that matter – had tracked the variations separately. In Paavo Järvi’s account I especially liked the richness he and the orchestra impart to the eighth variation. The Scherzo (Variation 9) begins at 8:47 and it’s engagingly done. The Trio, which is Variation 10 (from just after 12:00 to 14:25) is considerably slower; here the music is lovely and it’s also beautifully scored. The final movement is initially marked Langsam and what turns out to be an extended slow introduction features a lot of contrapuntal writing for woodwind and horns which, to my ears, has a touch of austerity to it. Just after 4:00 the pace quickens and the movement becomes rondo-like. Here, material from the preceding movements is referenced. There are a number of contrasting episodes and the music is resourcefully scored. Eventually, Schmidt arrives at an expansive and extended coda in which a brass chorale, richly decorated by the rest of the orchestra, plays an important part. The chorale is regally declaimed by the Frankfurt brass section. Arguably, the ending is a bit overdone but there’s no doubt that Schmidt ends his symphony on a very stirring, positive note.

I think Paavo Järvi’s performance is a considerable success. For his father’s recording, Chandos had moved from Detroit Symphony Orchestra Hall to Orchestra Hall, Chicago. However, they achieved broadly similar sonic results in both locations. Once again, DG give you a front of stalls perspective while Chandos place the listener at a little more of a distance.

The Third Symphony was completed in 1928 and was entered into the Schubert Centennial competition organised that year by the Columbia Gramophone Company. (Schmidt’s work achieved second place behind the Sixth Symphony of Kurt Atterberg.) The work requires somewhat more modest orchestral forces than is the case with the Second Symphony. I like Paavo Järvi’s way with the first movement, responding to the easy, pastoral vein in the music. Some listeners may prefer the more distanced recording that Chandos give to his father but, actually, as I’ve worked my way through these first three symphonies, I’ve come to have a definite preference for the more immediate DG sound. Neeme Järvi’s interpretation is appealing but DG’s approach mean that you get greater clarity and hear more inner detail in Paavo’s performance. That’s important because in this symphony you need to be able to follow the twists and turns of Schmidt’s chromatic language, which is often close to that of the Fourth Symphony. I think Paavo Järvi captures the spirit of the music and its lyrical flow very well. He’s really well served by his orchestra, especially the splendid woodwind section.

The second movement is surprisingly short – it plays for 7:36 here. It’s a set of compressed variations. In this performance I appreciate the way the rich harmonies are laid out for us to enjoy. Paavo Järvi leads a fine performance which is distinguished by splendid playing and a good deal of warmth. In the Scherzo which follows, Paavo is marginally swifter than his father and I like the greater spring in the step of his performance. Schmidt slows the pace a little for the Trio (2:52 - 5:44). Paavo makes the music genial and relaxed without sacrificing momentum. Hs father is a bit more expansive; I prefer the slightly swifter pacing of the DG version. The finale opens with a Lento introduction which, initially, is a chorale played by woodwind and horns over a pizzicato bass. This episode sounds rich in the Frankfurt performance. The Lento gives way (at 2:40) to a 6/8 Allegro vivace. There’s a good deal of spirit in Paavo Järvi’s view of the music – as, indeed, there is in his father’s performance. Paavo ensures there’s plenty of life in the music and spring in the rhythms. I enjoyed his performance and my enjoyment was enhanced by the presence in the DG sound.

I can’t make any father/son comparisons in the Fourth because I never bought Neeme Järvi’s recording – I opted instead for Franz Welser-Most’s LPO performance (EMI Classics). Recently, I found a great deal to admire in a live account by the Berlin Philharmonic and Kirill Petrenko (review). However, I’ve resisted the temptation to make more than a couple of comparative references to the Petrenko account because you can only acquire that as part of a luxurious (and expensive) boxed set. It’s interesting to note that in Petrenko’s hands the work plays for 40:52 while Järvi takes 44:14, though Petrenko never seems unduly hasty to me, nor do I feel that Järvi’s account ever drags.

Schmidt composed the symphony in 1932-33 against the tragic background of the death of his daughter in 1932, an event which assuredly coloured the work. The symphony is, I think, his masterpiece in the genre. The work’s structure is interesting in that it consists of four movements played without a break; furthermore, the symphony is permeated by a theme heard as a long trumpet solo right at the start, which is expertly delivered here by Balázs Nemes. The trumpet is unaccompanied, so Schmidt gives no clue whatsoever as to the tonality of the melody as it unfolds. I feel that Järvi paces the movement very well and he evidences affinity with the spirit of the music: was it by accident or design, I wonder, that the Fourth was the last of the symphonies that he performed with the FRSO? The orchestral playing is very fine indeed and DG’s recording allows us to appreciate fully Schmidt’s late romantic harmonies and melodic contours. The climaxes are ardent and I was especially impressed by the way that Järvi builds to the movement’s crisis not long before the end.

The first movement dissolves into a heartfelt Adagio which begins with an expressive, melancholy solo for Schmidt’s own instrument, the cello. This extended solo is played superbly by Peter-Philipp Staemmler. In the Petrenko set there’s equal eloquence and tonal richness from Ludwig Quandt; I honestly wouldn’t wish to express a preference for one of these fine cellists over the other. Midway through the movement (at 4:35) Schmidt introduces a noble, intense funeral march. Järvi does this episode very well indeed, building it to a shattering climax. Fittingly, when the march is over it’s a brief reappearance of the solo cello that leads us back to the movement’s opening elegy, though this time the melody is given to the woodwinds. It’s the cello, however, that has the last word before this enriching movement gives way to the Scherzo. Here, Järvi is as nimble as Petrenko and his performance is similarly light on its feet. He makes the movement’s brief catharsis (6:38) very potent. The start of the final movement is marked by a reappearance of the trumpet melody but this time it’s entrusted to the horn section over the softest of timpani rolls; the golden tones of the FRSO horn players do not disappoint. Schmidt’s finale is a summation; he spends much of the time revisiting the material of the first movement. Though there are several ardent climaxes the overall mood is one of tranquillity: I like the comment in the booklet essay that, by comparison with the first movement, the music is “inwardly placated and assuaged”. Right at the end the trumpet of Balázs Nemes brings us full circle as he’s left playing the theme with which he and Schmidt set us off on our symphonic and emotional journey some forty minutes earlier. At the start of the symphony, the trumpet was unsupported by any accompaniment; now the strings gently underpin the melody, filling in the tonality until the trumpet sounds the last two notes all alone. Schmidt’s gesture in returning right at the end to the fons et origo of the symphony is the perfect musical QED. Paavo Järvi’s performance of Schmidt’s Fourth is a distinguished one and it sets the seal on his cycle.

The set also includes a brief extra item, recorded at the same concerts as the Fourth Symphony. The Intermezzo from his opera Notre Dame is perhaps Schmidt’s best-known music; it’s been included on a number of mixed-programme albums in the past. It’s very well done here with the FRSO strings playing passionately.

I’ve found a great deal to admire in these performances by Paavo Järvi and the FRSO. I think he matches his father’s achievement in these scores and, indeed, where I’ve noted points of difference between them, my preference has been for Paavo’s way with the music.. Neeme Järvi’s performances are very fine ones but I think his son now has the edge, not least on account of the more impactful and detailed recordings. For that reason, I would urge anyone who already has the Chandos set to investigate the DG recordings also. I should say that there is one more complete cycle on disc, conducted by Vasily Sinaisky. I haven’t heard any of those Naxos recordings but I note that Dan Morgan expressed admiration for them.

Franz Schmidt’s symphonies deserve to be better known. They have been well served in these Frankfurt performances.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Stephen Greenbank ~ Dan Morgan

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