Schmidt: Symphony No. 4 - Blunier
MDG Live 937 1631-6
Classical - Orchestral
Franz Schmidt: Symphony No. 4, Intermezzo from "Notre Dame"
Beethoven Orchester Bonn
Stefan Blunier (conductor)
This new recording by the Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn under its conductor Stefan Blunier commemorates an extraordinary musician’s life spanning the years from the Austro-Hungarian monarchy to the National Socialist regime. It also inaugurates a new MDG series featuring live recordings with Franz Schmidt’s Symphony No. 4 and the Intermezzo from his Notre Dame.
Franz Schmidt grew up as a musical child prodigy in Pressburg, which is today’s Bratislava and the capital of Slovakia. His first piano teacher, Theodor Leschetitzky, urgently advised him not to pursue a career as a musician: “A man named Schmidt should not become an artist.” The Schmidts moved to Vienna, and it was here that Franz received the training he needed at the Konservatorium der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde and his first job as a cellist in the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra and Vienna Philharmonic. At the age of twenty-two he composed his first symphony and was awarded the Beethoven Prize of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. His first opera, Notre Dame, was premiered in 1914. Hugo von Hofmannsthal was highly positive in his evaluation of the composition: “Not too long ago I heard an opera here by an unknown composer ... I cannot help myself; it made a very fine impression on me.”
The experience of grief led Franz Schmidt to pen his fourth and last symphony. After he had seen his first wife gradually lose her soundness of body and mind in a sanatorium, he lost his only daughter to death in 1932. The fourth symphony was her requiem. Above all the second movement, a moving adagio, bears autobiographical traces: “It is thus that I imagine my death.” In 1939 the composer died of a heart attack.
This live recording with the Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn in Beethoven Hall in Bonn conveys a lot of atmosphere, and Stefan Blunier brilliantly presents the great romantic idea behind this symphony. The result – not least owing to the precision multichannel SACD technique and its rich detail – is lavish and lively listening pleasure.
Review by Graham Williams - June 23, 2010
Franz Schmidt’s composed his 4th Symphony in 1933 at a time of utmost despair in his life. It was the product of the crushing sorrow he experienced at the death of his daughter and the spiritual and physical breakdown that he underwent following that tragic event. The four movements of the symphony are played without a break, each one emerging seamlessly from its predecessor and thematically derived from the solo trumpet melody with which the work begins and ends. The almost palindromic structure of the work can be seen as a journey through the struggles and sorrows of life to the eventual peace of death.
I have long believed that Schmidt’s 4th Symphony is one of the greatest late-romantic works ever written, certainly the equal of any of Mahler’s symphonies, and whilst its neglect in the concert hall outside the composer’s native Austria is regrettable if not shameful, it has been reasonably well served on disc. Though recordings on CD by Franz Welser-Möst (EMI), Martin Sieghart (Chesky) and Neeme Järvi (Chandos) all have their good and bad points none come near to matching the magnificent 1971 Decca version by Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic. This performance possesses a mesmerizing, haunting quality and an absolute dedication to the spirit of the work that remains unsurpassed. Mehta’s spacious tempi combined with the ravishing playing of the Vienna PO and the Decca team’s fine engineering, make this recording, even after forty years, the yardstick by which all others should be judged.
The only competition available on SACD to these earlier recordings has been the finely executed and committed performance by Yakov Kreizberg and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra on PentaTone Schmidt: Symphony No. 4 - Kreizberg, that is until the arrival of this new one from MDG.
Stefan Blunier directs a scrupulously prepared performance of the work and elicits ultra-refined playing from the Beethoven Orchester, Bonn, of which he is the current principal conductor. The manner in which he gradually builds the opening string theme over its steady drumbeat to the first great climax is most impressive and throughout this performance he evinces a complete understanding of the symphony’s architecture. However, Blunier’s extreme care for subtly graded dynamics and beauty of phrasing leads him to adopt a dangerously slow tempo for the first movement; more of an andante than the marked ‘Allegro molto moderato’. Though this can at times restrict the forward pulse of the music, the overall result Blunier achieves is both moving and utterly convincing. The quality of the playing from each section of the orchestra and also its individual members is beyond reproach. From the firm trumpet playing at the start to the lovely cello solo in the ‘Adagio’ and the beautifully blended horns that open the finale, the corporate excellence of the Beethoven Orchester speaks for itself. The rather parsimonious MDG fill-up is just the short (5min.) ‘Intermezzo’ from Schmidt’s opera ‘Notre Dame’ whereas the PentaTone version additionally includes the Introduction and Carnival music from the same opera.
MDG’s 5.1/stereo/2+2+2 recording, apparently the first in a new series of live recordings by these artists, is superb. It is spacious with a wide dynamic range. The sound reaches the listener from a midway position in the Beethovenhalle, Bonn, that in no way limits the impact of the massive tam-tam strokes and cymbals at the climaxes, yet allows the strings to exhibit a pleasing smoothness and bloom. There is no trace to be heard of an audience or applause at the end of a work that demands reflective silence following its conclusion.
Those contemplating purchasing a recording of this supremely beautiful masterpiece should definitely add Blunier’s eloquent reading to their shortlist.
Copyright © 2010 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net