Schmidt's Symphonic Splendor in Hi-Rez

Semyon Bychkov and the Vienna Philharmonic's splendid recording of Franz Schmidt's Symphony No.2, recently released by Sony in CD and hi-rez formats, is dazzling in its pastoral splendor. The music is lush and liquid, with one gorgeous orchestral effusion after the other. Which is not to say that Schmidt's ideas, as verdant as they be, flow organically in a manner that creates a coherent whole.

Truth be told, the Second Symphony tends to careen from idea to idea, and from one key change to another, sometimes without apparent regard for the big picture. It opens with music so densely scored and deliciously performed that it sounds like spring in full flower. Around 8:50, as it continues to wander through fields, valleys, and lush forests, it reaches a big. juicy climax. (Don't quote me on that timing, because I was too overwhelmed by the impact of it all to think about opening my eyes to check my dCS Paganini transport's read-out until after the fact.) But after more flowing music, Schmidt seems unsure where to go.

Happily, once he drives a new idea forward, it is invariably pleasing, and often dazzling. Some themes may be a bit pedantic, but once everybody in the Vienna Philharmonic starts playing at once, the visceral experience is so overwhelming that the head tends not to care. As long as you can allow for the fact that Schmidt is wont to shift gears midstream, and that the endings of his first and third (final) movements are strangely anti-climactic, you may find yourself in love with his Second Symphony.

Before proceeding farther, some biographical information about Schmidt (1874–1939) is in order. It was between 1911 and 1913, while Schmidt served as both cellist in the Vienna Philharmonic and professor at the Vienna Conservatory, that he composed his Second Symphony. Premiered at the end of 1913, and first performed by the Vienna Philharmonic on November 29, 1914, it received such a scathing review from Karl Löbl in Der Express that the Vienna Philharmonic polled 2360 listeners to see if they agreed. As it turned out, only 13 agreed with the review, 112 declined to comment, but a whopping 2235 roundly condemned it! A number of players even wrote, "For us there is something sacrosanct about Franz Schmidt. We are connected to him by a kind of umbilical cord, and are touchy when anyone tramples on it."

Over a century later, in our paradoxically increasingly inter-connected universe in which people relate via quasi-sentences texted in isolation, it is possible to listen to the symphony in more objective fashion. Doing so, we can acknowledge that as beautiful as Schmidt's music may be, some of his transitions are downright weird.

The second movement, comprised of 10 variations on a simple woodwind theme, is an unquestionable symphonic showpiece that piles lushness upon lushness. At times Straussian in its excesses, as though one were attending a formal tea in the countryside and being plied with far too many sweet confections, the movement occasionally breaks into a waltz that threatens to whirl out of control. "What exactly is Schmidt on?" you may wonder, as he dizzily careens from one theme to the other. But as long as you don't become preoccupied with the direction in which he's heading, and can allow yourself to close your eyes and take it all in, there's no denying that it's a trip worth taking.

The last movement, which at times meanders in quasi-fugal fashion, leads to a huge explosion and glorious finale. What the strange key modulation that occurs shortly before the ending is about, we may never know.

Schmidt's Symphony No.2 may ultimately be one of those "love it or leave it" pieces, but there's so much to love that you won't be in a rush to leave anytime soon. Besides, you may be too delirious to do much else than stagger to your feet and wonder, after so much dessert in the woods, if there's any need for a main course.

Filling out the recording is Träumerei am Kamin (Dreaming by the Fireside), aka the Symphonic Interlude from Richard Strauss' rarely performed opera, Intermezzo. It's 6:51 of schmaltz, and hardly top-drawer Strauss. Nonetheless, it's a fitting companion to Schmidt's irrepressibly colorful, mostly joy-filled romp through nature. The brilliant Semyon Bychkov conducts as if to the manner born, even if it's unclear exactly what that manner is all about.

dalethorn's picture

Very cool discovery here, as usual, with Jason's keen ear providing the lead. I'm not able to access a download or CD now having been dodging Irma for a few days, however there are a few samples on Youtube that sound quite good. Youtube seems to have improved their sound recently. Wikipedia has a splendid page on Franz Schmidt, and where (like a lot of musicians) he had his ups and downs, his last years seem to have been in a more devotional frame of mind, having been burdened with the oncoming war et al.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I hope you have been successful, and that all you love, both human and material, survives intact.

dalethorn's picture

Back to the real world now, having a first listen to the symphony, concurring with the article, I was wondering whether Schmidt couldn't have made subtitles for different parts of the first movement, which seem more like mini-movements than part of one? I suppose it's all written down somewhere, but the liner notes were a little vague.

bob stern's picture

or is Sony withholding the "real" high-res version?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture


audiocaptain's picture

Odd that you would review this recording. I bought it while in a cd shop in Vienna. When I ask about vinyl they looked at me like I was crazy. Picked up some very nice and rare recordings and have been enjoying them daily.
Really enjoyed the concerts we attended and the great halls. Recommend this city to any serious music lover.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Clearly we both love discovering new things. That seems anything but odd to me. Glad you found it.

audiocaptain's picture

You're correct we do love discovering new things. This is an excellent piece and the orchestra plays with passion.

donlin's picture

Thank you Jason for this review. It's a wonderful recording that I never would have considered otherwise. Not the first time that has happened with one of your reviews.

Amphissa's picture

To my knowledge, Bychkov first performed this symphony with the same orchestra in the same hall less than a year before this recording took place. That was in 2014. This recording was made in 2015. So why is it released now, more than two years after the date of the recording? BTW, the tempi in the original performance differs from this recording only by a minute or so. For a symphony this expansive, that suggests Bychkov knew exactly what "manner" he wanted for this music from the get-go.

foxhall's picture

I've always loved Järvi's second symphony recording with the CSO but this Bychkov is really growing on me.