Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 4.
Variations on a Hussar’s Song
Vassily Sinaisky, cond; Malmö SO
NAXOS 8.572118 (75:02)
With this, Vassily Sinaisky brings to a close his cycle of the four Schmidt symphonies for Naxos, and what a distinguished cycle it has been. What a pleasure it is for us old-timers to even be able to compare different Schmidt cycles. Franz Schmidt wrote this Fourth Symphony in 1933, and between then and 1971 there was a single recording of it, by Rudolf Moralt
from the middle or late 1950s I believe. It was a decent enough performance, one that allowed you to understand that this was a distinguished work, but the constricted sound, arid string playing, and pedestrian conducting did not begin to do justice to the score. Then in 1971 Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic recorded it for Decca, a splendid performance that still stands up well today. In 1986 came Ludovic Rajter (part of the first recorded cycle of the four), rhythmically flabby and lacking in tension. In 1995 the first serious competition to Mehta came, in a fine performance by Franz Welser-Möst on EMI, somewhat lighter and more lyrical than Mehta’s. In 1996, there were two—Järvi’s from Detroit on Chandos, and Martin Seighart and the Linz Bruckner Orchestra on Chesky, the latter a stunning performance combining warmth and drama, and blessed by Chesky’s rich recorded sound. It is not available everywhere, but as I write this it is listed on Amazon for $29.95. Next came what I believe was the first SACD version, by Yakov Kreizberg and the Netherlands Philharmonic on PentaTone 5186015, also a richly colored, nicely paced performance. Stefan Blunier’s version from Bonn, also an SACD, is a decent enough performance but not at the level of the best, and Fabio Luisi’s (part of another complete cycle) from the MDR is also very good—similar in its transparency and lyricism to Welser-Möst, but a bit slower and dreamier.
This symphony was completed in 1933, and was written as a Requiem for Schmidt’s daughter, Emma, who died in childbirth. Schmidt’s life had other tragedies—including the mental breakdown of his first wife (who was institutionalized in 1919, and killed by the Nazis in 1942, three years after Schmidt died). This is a remarkable work—quite unlike any other post-Romantic symphony I know of. It is conceived in a single overarching movement, though its four large sections serve the roles of different movements. Nowhere, however, does the spirit of a jovial scherzo inhabit this music—even the
third movement is tinged with the macabre, and ultimately the music’s world crashes in on itself through the creation of some amazing harmonic tension. The symphony’s opening, a desolate, chromatic solo trumpet tune, doesn’t seem substantial enough to be the foundation of a 50-minute symphony, but that is precisely what it is. This melancholy beginning serves as the thematic underpinning of a great deal of the work. Schmidt finds the potential in this tune for music fast and slow, richly textured or sparse.
As I have said in these pages before, I do not believe in ranking musical performances (or, for that matter, compositions) as if they were sports teams. There is not generally a “best” and “second best.” This performance clearly belongs in a group at the top—a group including Mehta, Welser-Möst, Sieghart, Kreizberg, and Luisi. Imagine that! A half dozen first-rate recordings of Franz Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony! If you already own one of the other fine ones, there is probably no need to add this to your collection unless you are, like me, a Schmidt enthusiast. In that case, it may just be different enough to warrant your attention. If you do not know this work, but like the late-Romantic style (Schmidt is truly the last of the Austro-German symphonists, not Mahler as we are usually told), this budget-priced Naxos disc would be a great way to get to know a very special composer.
Sinaisky is quicker than most of the competition, but it never feels rushed because of his supple phrasing and keen ear for orchestral color and balance. He molds phrases firmly, and the music is held together by a sense of direction throughout. His way with dynamic shading and color, and the actual sonority he gets, emphasize the inherent bittersweet sadness at the core of this music. In the end, the impression this performance leaves is one of gentleness and intimacy, and that is a singularly appropriate view. There is more crushing weight in other performances, and that has its rewards, too. But no one interpretive viewpoint can give equal weight to everything in this score. This is a heartbreakingly beautiful piece of music, and Sinaisky and his excellent Malmö musicians give us a deeply moving performance of it.
The filler is substantial—an extremely skillful, colorful set of variations for orchestra that reveals Schmidt as a wonderful orchestrator. And to anyone who claims that Schmidt’s music lacks individuality or a distinctive voice, these
stand as a vivid refutation. Listen to three measures and tell me that this is not the same composer who wrote the symphony that precedes it on the disc. Once again, the performance is first-rate. Naxos’s sound is well balanced and transparent, while not sacrificing richness. Keith Anderson’s notes are informative.
FANFARE: Henry Fogel
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 4 in C major by Franz Schmidt
Malmö Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1932-1933; Austria
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