Jeremy Lee writes
Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) was an Austrian composer, cellist, pianist, and a contemporary to Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, but nowhere near as famous, and undeservedly so–his musical language resembled Strauss, but his gift of melody (probably developed from his training as a cellist) and vast range of emotions while keeping the content concise makes his work very special and almost instantly recognizable. His chef d’oeuvre is arguable: either his epic oratorio The Book of Seven Seals, or this symphony, the Fourth and his last.
Vassily Sinaisky’s Naxos cycle of the complete Schmidt symphonies ends with this installment, and rarely though this work has been recorded, Sinaisky immediately faces formidable competition from Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic, and Franz Welser-Most with the London Philharmonic. Sinaisky and his Malmo forces relish the challenge with aplomb, giving us a swiftly-paced (some may say well-paced, and I wouldn’t disagree) and cool reading, detailed and clear. My only major reservation concerns the slightly glib second movement (despite a particularly suave and songful cello solo), and the crisp funeral march rhythm at the expense of emotional impact at the too subdued climax–certainly Mehta’s slower tempo allows the percussion in the climax (cymbal, bass drum, gong) to make their full emotional impact. But otherwise, nothing goes wrong. It’s texturally well-balanced, well-played and well-recorded, so kudos to all concerned.
The filler is the Variations on a Hussar’s Song, not a masterpiece in every sense of the word, but enjoyable nonetheless, and despite the fact that the percussion could afford to be a bit more prominent, it’s a decent performance. All things considered, Mehta’s performance of the 4th remains my favorite, but given that it’s out of print, and Sinaisky’s is not far behind, I can recommend Sinaisky’s as a good introduction to Schmidt’s artistry. Welser-Most’s recording on EMI, however, sports the exact same coupling and budget price with the Naxos, and while not as sumptuously recorded as Sinaisky, it doesn’t lose much to Mehta in terms of emotional impact, so be sure to sample them before you buy.
- Album name: Schmidt: Symphony No. 4; Variations on a Hussar’s Song
- Performers: Vassily Sinaisky (conductor); Malmö Symphony Orchestra
- Label: Naxos 8.572118
- Sonics: Stereo DDD
- Total playing time: 75:02