COMPOSERS: Franz Schmidt,R Strauss
ALBUM TITLE: Schmidt * R Strauss
WORKS: Schmidt Symphony No. 2; R Strauss Dreaming by the Fireside
PERFORMER: Vienna Philharmonic/ Semyon Bychkov
CATALOGUE NO: 88985355522
Semyon Bychkov and the Vienna Philharmonic blitzed Proms regulars with the revelation of the 2015 season – a symphony by a little-known name that went beyond the usual boundaries of the late-Romantic style. Recordings tend to have favoured Austrian composer Franz Schmidt’s extraordinary apocalyptic cantata The Book of the Seven Seals – also a Proms hit in an earlier season – and the Fourth Symphony, but the Second is the one more likely to blow your mind. And this is the golden performance to convince you that Schmidt succeeds as a symphonist on many levels. Admittedly it’s a later work than the Bruckner symphonies – its time of composition, 1911-13, makes it roughly contemporary with Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony – but personally I’d still rather hear it than most of Bruckner’s less firm-of-purpose specimens.
Despite the choice of E flat major, the key of heroism for Beethoven and (more tongue in cheek) for Strauss in his A Hero’s Life, the opening is a transparent babbling brook, welcome on its two returns. The third return is, as the booklet note points out, especially wonderful when left to strings alone, shorn of its clarinets. Horns eventually come to the fore, the Vienna Philharmonic’s prize specimens glowing in their home at the Musikverein, while strings sweep forward in far from generic melody. Just when you need simplicity, you get it in the theme of the central variations. These balance sweetness with will-o’-the-wisp fantasy until the climactic variation, a familiar sound to anyone who knows Schmidt’s best-known number, the ecstatic Intermezzo from his opera Notre-Dame.
Form-wise there’s so much to admire – the last two variations become a waltz-scherzo and trio,
with quite an earworm of a leading idea, obviating the need for four separate movements. Then the finale builds in expressive counterpoint towards a great chorale and a surprise intrusion from the tam-tam before the short last blaze.
It was inspired of Bychkov to choose the slow-movement interlude portraying the beautiful soul of the composer’s wife in Strauss’s autobiographical comedy of marital misunderstanding, Intermezzo. Dreaming by the Fireside, the point in the action where Christine Storch (aka Pauline Strauss) blends the excitement of meeting a young nobleman with her fundamentally unshakable love for her husband, is a desert island choice of mine, and this interpretation, favouring the lower lines, is among the best. The sound team in Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal makes it all sound so naturally gorgeous, and Bychkov makes sure that it’s never more gilt. This is down on my list of the best discs of 2017 already, and it will take some toppling from first place.
Listen to an excerpt from this recording here.