Schmidt’s Luxuriant Second Symphony: A Rare Bird at the Royal Academy

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schmidt, Academy Symphony Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Duke’s Hall Royal Academy of Music, London, 28.3.2014 (RB)

Franz Schmidt – Symphony No 2 in E Flat

 It’s no small tribute to the RoyalAcademy that it can field a 92-strong orchestra to bring a London audience one of the most complex of late-romantic symphonies with such style. Semyon Bychkov’s confidence in hitching his star to them was amply rewarded in a concert in which that symphony by Austrian composer Franz Schmidt (1874 –1939), lasting over fifty minutes, was the only work. This 1912 symphony is far from being standard concert fare, not even in Schmidt’s home country. Its sometimes densely convoluted weave can confound even the strongest of bands. There were moments, especially in the outer panels of this three-movement work, where the sound became opaque – congealed, even, but this may well be a function of the hall as much as of inter-sectional balance.  This engorged intricacy is part of the Schmidt sound.

The work launches with a quasi-avian melody which acts as the motor for the first movement. This features gloriously lyrical writing for the strings and some eruptive brass – which, by the way, includes eight French Horns. The strings were in lush form for the creamier Viennese pages where the sound had the first benches exchanging smiles. In this movement Schmidt declares himself a heart-descendant of Schubert with smiling ideas flowing with frictionless eloquence. He was to continue the Schubertian connection in his Third Symphony.

There’s an extremely inventive set of variations in the central movement where the orchestration is almost exclusively luminous and transparent. Schmidt is no slouch when it comes to variations ,as you may know if you have ever heard his orchestral Hussar Song Variations. While the first movement occasionally had me thinking of Elgar’s Symphony No. 2 and that rarely-visiting ‘Spirit of Delight’, the second movement at times recalled the chamber music aspects of Falstaff.  There should be special praise for the player of the gong, the quietly awed tones of which secured several key transitions. The Langsam finale magnificently brought things to a close.

This is a Symphony of a sunny and singing temperament which makes its climactic statements without tragedy; rather akin to Josef Suk’s Ripening and Schoeck’s Sommernacht. If you are looking for Schmidt and tragedy then you can find this in the Fourth Symphony.

If you are in Vienna you will be able to hear this symphony three times on home ground with the Vienna Philharmonic and Bychkov again at the Musikverein on 17-19 May 2014.

You can see a very brief snatch of the Bychkov rehearsing a Spanish Orchestra in this symphony on YouTube.

This Duke’s Hall concert was part of the Academy’s admirable Free on Fridays series.  It was attended by a capacity audience of nearly 400 who greeted the orchestra with enthusiasm.  Bychkov brought each of the sections to their feet in sequence to bask in the well-deserved applause. After this let’s have some other rare and complex late symphonies. Given Bychkov’s sympathy for the Schmidt we can surely hope for the same composer’s tragic Fourth Symphony, Korngold’s Symphony and, most unjustifiably neglected, Joseph Marx’s lyrically profuse Herbstsymphonie.

Rob Barnett

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