Monday, June 5, 2017

The Vienna Philharmonic Records Music by a Past “Favorite Son”

This past Friday, Sony Classical released a new CD, most of which consists of a performance of Franz Schmidt’s second symphony in E-flat major. The performing ensemble is the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Semyon Bychkov. This is music whose historical connection to the ensemble may have a stronger impact than the act of listening to it, so a bit of explanation is in order.

Because we are talking about Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century, the best place to begin is with Gustav Mahler. Mahler had a high opinion of Schmidt, but that opinion was based on his talent as a cellist in the Court Opera Orchestra. This was the ensemble for the Vienna State Opera, but founding the Vienna Philharmonic in 1833 provided those musicians with the opportunity to perform music outside the operatic repertoire.

One of Schmidt’s early achievements was the two-act opera Notre Dame, based on the novel by Victor Hugo that we know by the English title The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Mahler had the opportunity to give this opera its first performance at the Vienna Opera, but he turned it down. This may have been because the Viennese press made it a point to favor Schmidt’s first symphony, composed two years before the opera, to Mahler’s own music.

However, the press could take away as readily as it could give. The symphony on this new recording is Schmidt’s second, and the booklet notes by Harald Haslmayr observe that the press was about as negative towards this symphony as it had been towards the first, if not more so. The musicians rallied to Schmidt’s defense, and Haslmayr cites one representative reaction:
For us, there is something sacrosanct about Franz Schmidt, we are connected to him by a kind of umbilical cord and are touchy when anyone tramples on it.
At least the Vienna Philharmonic did not accuse the press of circulating “fake news!”

Listening to this music about a century later, one is struck by the predominance of lush sonorities. One might almost describe it as Mahler without the sharp edges of irony and angst. In many ways one can approach Schmidt the same way as one approaches Erich Wolfgang Korngold, although, in all likelihood, Korngold’s father Julius may well have been at the forefront of those press attacks on Schmidt. However, the younger Korngold tended to work in scales of only moderate duration. Schmidt, on the other hand, seems to be going for Mahler’s capacity for expansiveness but without Mahler’s architectural skills that endow that expansiveness with some overall sense of logical flow.

However, if there really is some underlying chemistry that has endeared Schmidt to the culture of the Vienna Philharmonic, then Bychkov seems to have done a first-rate job when it comes to realizing that chemistry through an effective interpretation of the score. He even coupled the 45-minute journey through the three movements of this symphony with an “afterword” in the form of one of the symphonic interludes from Richard Strauss’ opera Intermezzo. That interlude is less than seven minutes in duration, just about the right scale for a “dessert course” following the abundance of the preceding three-movement feast.

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