Schmidt: Symphony No 4, Etc / Kreizberg, Netherlands Po

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This selection is a Hybrid Multichannel Super Audio CD. The Stereo Hybrid SACD program can be played on any standard compact disc player. The DSD Surround and Stereo programs require an SACD player for playback.

At long last, Franz Schmidt’s magnificent Fourth Symphony is becoming a staple of the CD catalog, if not the concert hall. The mournful, nostalgic, yearning score, an elegy for a dead daughter and a dying culture (Vienna, 1934), is one of the last great gestures of the Romantic era. It’s Strauss without the bombast, Mahler without the neuroses. This 45-minute dirge received only one recording during the mono era, and then only one pre-digital stereo treatment—one of its best versions, by Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic. That Decca recording, from about 1971, remains one of the finest things Mehta has ever done. I don’t mean that to sound like damning with faint praise; Mehta is far from my favorite conductor, but with this score and the Vienna Philharmonic he drew on emotional resources that would elude him later in his career. For its balance of sorrow, anguish, and uneasy peace, the Mehta recording has never quite been bettered. L’udovít Rajter and the Bratislava Radio Orchestra made the symphony’s first digital recording, in 1987, as part of an Opus cycle that produced the first decent versions of Schmidt’s first two symphonies (they and the Third are much sunnier works than the Fourth). Rajter’s Fourth was honorable, but was no longer necessary when Mehta finally appeared on CD and other better-played versions came along. Those latter include Franz Welser-Möst and the London Philharmonic (EMI, 1994), followed within a couple of years by Martin Sieghart and the Bruckner Orchestra of Linz (Chesky) and Neeme Järvi and the Detroit Symphony (Chandos). Members of the London Philharmonic nicknamed Welser-Möst “Frankly Worse than Most,” which is surely an overstatement, although in this lineup he’s better only than Rajter; even so, his disc is valuable for its inclusion of Schmidt’s Variations on a Hussar’s Song, otherwise available only on a hard-to-find Preiser CD. Sieghart is surprisingly competitive, perhaps edging out Järvi to come in a close second to Mehta.

Now, just at the dawn of the SACD era, we already have a first-rate new version of Schmidt’s Fourth in superb surround sound from Yakov Kreizberg and the Netherlands Philharmonic on PentaTone. The recorded sound is a bit distant, but detailed (clear enough to reveal an occasional grunt from the podium). More important, Kreizberg’s performance breathes nicely, with a natural rubato that makes its effect over large musical paragraphs more than through individual phrases. It isn’t quite my Schmidt ideal; the big climax about six minutes into the Molto vivace, which is effectively the third movement, could be marginally more cataclysmic. (An aside: The chorale just after this point would have been a better place than three minutes from the end to begin track 4, since the chorale introduces what is essentially the symphony’s recapitulation if you regard the work as one massive sonata-allegro movement.) Also, Kreizberg could have wrung more passion out of the little climax about two-and-a-half minutes from the end, the symphony’s last cry before it dies away into the bereft trumpet solo with which it began. But these are small points, and Kreizberg joins Sieghart just marginally behind Mehta.

Perhaps tipping the judgment to Kreizberg, besides the modern five-channel sound (the CD can also be played in two-channel stereo on a regular player), is the inclusion of three orchestral bits from Schmidt’s opera Notre Dame (as in the Victor Hugo novel known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame). The lush, string-centered, harp-haloed Intermezzo has been recorded many times before, most notably in a voluptuous, daringly slow Karajan version on EMI, but the Introduction and “Carnival Music” are comparative rarities. I’ve encountered these three pieces together as a suite only on an Opus/Musical Heritage Society LP by Rajter and the Slovak Philharmonic, where the music was inexactly billed as “Carnival and Intermezzo.” The suite is a welcome addition to this disc, but it should have come first rather than last; Schmidt’s devastating Symphony No. 4 should be followed only by silence.

James Reel, FANFARE

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: PTC5186015

  • UPC: 827949001567

  • Label: Pentatone

  • Composer: Franz Schmidt

  • Conductor: Yakov Kreizberg

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra