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Schmidt: Symphony No. 2 - Blunier

Schmidt: Symphony No. 2 - Blunier

MDG  937 2006-6

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Franz Schmidt: Symphony No. 2
Richard Strauss: Festliches Präludium, Op. 61

Beethoven Orchester Bonn
Stefan Blunier (conductor)


Forgotten Master
Franz Schmidt was “the most musical man in Vienna” – this is what Gustav Mahler had to say about his fellow composer, who, unlike him, is almost completely forgotten today. Stefan Blunier has rediscovered this late-romantic master and now with the mighty forces of the Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn presents Schmidt’s Symphony No. 2 together with Richard Strauss’s Festival Prelude composed during the same year for the opening of Vienna’s Konzerthaus.

Tonal Loyalties
Schmidt played in a string quartet with Arnold Schönberg, but the tonal idioms of the two composers could not have been more different. While Schönberg very early bade farewell to major-minor harmony and later turned to twelve-tone music, Schmidt remained true to tonality until the end of his life. After the Austrian Anschluss this commitment brought him dubious distinctions from the Nazis – which of course did not help him after the fall of the “Thousand-Year Reich.”

Textural Logistics
Schmidt calls for a gigantic orchestra for his second symphony. However, sheer volume is a concern only in a few passages. He instead emphasizes kaleidoscopic color shifts produced in what is often an instrumentation reminiscent of chamber music. Behind it all there is a masterfully composed texture with overlapping themes and variations resulting in a cyclical work structure with a systematic logic.

Musical Feast
By contrast, in the Festival Prelude the musical magician Richard Strauss – once again – aims at big sound. The majestic development of instrumental splendor leaves nobody unmoved – especially when the three-dimensional 2+2+2 live recording transports the illusion of a firsthand audio experiences right into your own living room. When the prelude celebrated its premiere Beethoven’s hymnic ninth symphony was also on the concert program – but Strauss’s new work had a much greater impact.

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Review by Graham Williams - June 15, 2017

Those with a penchant for sumptuous and grandiloquent late-Romantic orchestral works should investigate without delay this latest MDG release from Stefan Blunier and his fine Beethoven Orchester Bonn that couples the 2nd Symphony of Franz Schmidt with Richard Strauss's imposing Festliches Präludium Op 61. Both these works received their premieres in 1913 and with this recording make their debut on SACD in high resolution sound.

By 1913 Richard Strauss had already completed his major orchestral works and become pre-occupied with writing operas, but he still accepted various commissions including one for the consecration of the then newly built Vienna Konzerthaus. He composed this Festliches Präludium (Festival Prelude) on a lavish scale to suit the splendour of the new concert hall. The orchestral forces Strauss requires are gargantuan and include the use of an organ – played here by Christoph Anselm Noll – to further emphasise the grandeur of the occasion. It comes as no surprise that, due to the expense of programming this work, performances are rare, but though the piece has appeared on disc before Blumier's uninhibited account of it captured in rich multi-channel sound does full justice to the excesses of this undeniably overblown but thrilling piece.

The neglect of Franz Schmidt's symphonic works outside his native Austria is perplexing. Only the last of his four symphonies appears fitfully on concert programmes, but fortunately has received a number of fine recordings on disc including one from Stefan Blunier that appeared in 2010 Schmidt: Symphony No. 4 - Blunier.

The 2nd Symphony heard here is a wonderful composition; sunny and optimistic in disposition with an abundance of heart-warming melody and clear lines that belie its contrapuntal complexity. The contrast with the outpourings of grief that characterises much of the 4th Symphony could hardly be more striking. The work is scored for a very large orchestra that includes eight horns, four trumpets and five clarinets, but Schmidt uses these forces with exceptional skill and surprising delicacy. The form of the work is also most original. Schmidt casts the Symphony in three movements, the second and longest being a brilliantly inventive set of ten variations on a simple folk-like theme, the last two of which represent the work's scherzo and trio. Blunier's tempi are more expansive than say Järvi (Chandos) or Sinaisky (Naxos), but do allow all sections of the Bonn orchestra to luxuriate in the music's rich textures (including the fiendishly difficult baroque-like figurations that permeate the opening movement) without losing impetus or focus. There is little doubt that Blunier's scrupulously prepared and well-executed account of the score should make many new friends for this undoubted masterpiece.

Both works were recorded at a concert given in the Beethovenhalle, Bonn on May 13th 2016 with what was presumably a patch session the following day. MDG's recording (5.1/Stereo/2+2+2) is opulent and spacious with a convincing concert hall perspective. It captures not only the huge climaxes of the Strauss piece with ease, but also such telling details as Schmidt's frequent use of soft tam-tam strokes in the Symphony.

It is to be hoped that these artists will, in due course, provide us with the remaining two Schmidt symphonies on SACD as both are well worth investigating. In the meantime this attractive and valuable issue can be recommended with confidence.

Copyright © 2017 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net

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Comment by William Hecht - July 17, 2017 (1 of 1)

While some works/composers are recorded over and over again ad nauseam other wonderful music rarely if ever makes it onto sacd. Here at last is Franz Schmidt's second symphony, leaving only numbers one and three to go. This is a very different work than the more commonly, though still rarely, heard fourth, and while I believe that the fourth is the last great flowering of the Austro/German romantic symphony this lighter, happier piece is still a great pleasure to hear. Blunier's performance seems just fine, but I must admit to never having heard the piece live and having only Jarvi's Chandos rbcd for comparison. MDG's 2+2+2 recording system never seems to translate perfectly to my 5.0 setup, but the mc sound is very effective nonetheless. A big thank you to MDG along with the wish that numbers one and three will appear much sooner than the multi year gap between Blunier's fourth and second.