FRANZ SCHMIDT: Symphony No. 2 in E-flat Major; R. STRAUSS: Dreaming by the Fireside – Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Semyon Bychkov – Sony 88985355522, 55:20 (6/2/17) ****:
Semyon Bychkov and the VPO celebrate music that proves endemic to Vienna, in their under-rated favorite son, Franz Schmidt.
Generally speaking, the late-Romantic music of Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) has not exported well; and he remains a local, Viennese figure whose currency runs short of Bruckner and Mahler, his having been overshadowed, as well, by the members of the more progressive Second Viennese School. The few acolytes of Schmidt’s music have been Mahler, Mitropoulos, and Mehta, and of late, Welser-Moest, Sinaisky, and the family Jarvi. Likely, Schmidt’s political loyalties (to National Socialism) did not win him post-War favor, nor did his remark to a potential advocate—Herbert von Karajan—when Schmidt told him he had no future in conducting.
The E-flat Symphony (1911-1913) can be construed as a “pastoral symphony,” with its own influences inherited from Bruckner and Richard Strauss. One commentator calls this music “brassy, bold, and even belligerently optimistic.” The first impulse of the Lebhaft movement rings bucolic, babbling brook hypostasized into a pantheistic chorale. Schmidt manipulates large, brassy and battery elements with a kind of Elgar string sonority, regal and authoritarian. The music modulates between B Major and G Major, the pedal points smeared into each other in the manner of a rhapsodic idyll. In its more stentorian moments, the music begs for comparison with the self-inflated rhetoric in Richard Strauss. During the recapitulation, a real sense of melody emerges, if only momentarily. The sound of the Vienna Philharmonic certainly relishes a lushness of the post-Romantic color chromatics Schoenberg indulges for his Pelleas und Melisande, the lush sound courtesy of Christian Gorz and Suzanne Wirlitsch.
This may read as musical blasphemy, but the tune for Schmidt’s large Allegretto con variazioni sounds like “Goodbye, Old Paint; I’m Leavin’ Cheyenne.” The colors derive from Schmidt’s sense of his Bratislava birthplace. The theme and its ten variants take us through a familiar sound landscape we know from Dvorak and moments from Max Reger. The last three variations prove the most engaging: the eighth, in F-sharp Major, introduces a gypsy element formula, strictly Austro-Hungarian a la Brahms. The ninth and tenth variations become a transitional piece of scherzo writing, a last contrast prior to the Finale—set as along progression to a triumphant chorale, a la Bruckner. The swirling, polyphonic harmonies at moments sound like Smetana’s hazy invocations of mystical nature. Te sprawling orchestral canvas manages to subsume elements from Gabrieli, Strauss, Bruckner, and Wagner before its pantheistic, hallucinatory litany sounds the tam-tam, which might invoke death and transfiguration.
Bychkov complements the hyper-lush Schmidt score with the Symphonic Interlude from the Richard Strauss opera Intermezzo (1924). Better known as “Dreaming by the Fireside,” the music conveys a domestic idyll, much as we find in the Domestic Symphony. Karajan described the moment as “old-world warmth,” and even its rolling tympani invoke a kind of ‘amen’ upon this bower of bliss. That the music means to celebrate by analogy the Strauss marriage to soprano Pauline de Ahna may add a special tone of optimism to the moment.
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