Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) was a somewhat younger contemporary of Richard Strauss and much of his orchestral music sounds like middle period Strauss. Schmidt had the same fondness for soaring romantic melodies, voluptuous orchestration and elaborate contrapuntal textures. Strauss enjoyed much greater success but Schmidt’s music, especially his four symphonies, deserve more performances than they have had over the years. This new recording of the Symphony No. 2 (1913) is certainly good enough to warrant a second look at this neglected composer.
Schmidt was born in Bratislava, now part of Slovakia, of Hungarian parents, but spent most of his career in Vienna. He was a cellist in the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra and often played under Mahler. He was an extraordinarily talented musician and played the piano well enough to become a professor of piano at the Vienna Conservatory. As a young man he had numbered Bruckner among his teachers.
The Symphony No. 2 begins with playful figuration in the woodwinds but before long the mood darkens, textures thicken and we are in the midst of serious symphonic argument. The second movement is a set of variations on a strikingly beautiful theme, and part-way through one of the variations is a waltz in the best Viennese style. The finale begins with a full-blown fugue and concludes with a grand Brucknerian chorale peroration.
There have been several recordings of the Second Symphony over the years—conductors drawn to the piece include Dimitri Mitropoulos, Fabio Luisi, Vassily Sinaisky and Neeme Järvi—but this latest one has the distinct advantage of featuring Vienna’s greatest orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, probably the very orchestra Schmidt had in mind when he composed his Second Symphony. The warmth of its sound and the stylishness of its phrasing put it into a special category as far as Schmidt’s music is concerned. To be fair, hearing the famous Chicago Symphony brass section at its finest in the chorale at the end of the Second Symphony (Chandos 8779) is pretty impressive, but elsewhere Bychkov and the VPO plumb the expressive depths of the piece with singular mastery.
The brief filler item on this CD, “Dreaming by the Fireside”, is an interlude from Richard Strauss’s opera Intermezzo, written just a few years after Schmidt’s Symphony No. 2. It is in very much the same style. While Strauss could toss off this sort of highly professional note-spinning over a game of whist on any given day, it is nonetheless beautiful as far as it goes.
Since his early days as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov has paid his dues and turned into a major conductor. He appears regularly to rave reviews with major orchestras and opera companies all over the world. It is a mystery why he is not heading one or more of them.
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