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Franz SCHMIDT (1874-1939)
Complete Symphonies
Symphony No. 1 in E major (1896-1899) [44:20]
Symphony No. 2 in E flat major (1911-1912) [50:18]
Symphony No. 3 in A major (1927-1928) [40:26]
Symphony No. 4 in C major (1932-1933) [44:34]
Notre Dame: Intermezzo (1903) [4:40]
Frankfurt Radio Symphony/Paavo Järvi
rec. live, 2013-2018, hr-Sendesaal, (1 & 2); Alte Oper (3, 4 & Intermezzo)
Reviewed as a 16-bit download
Pdf booklet included
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4838336 [3 CDs: 180:43]

In his review of this Paavo Järvi set, Stephen Greenbank revealed he came to these symphonies twenty years ago. It must have been at least thirty when I first tried - and failed - to break into this music. Then along came Covid-19, and I had more time to work on repertoire that has defeated my lock-picking skills in the past. One morning I listened to Vassily Sinaisky’s account of Schmidt’s Symphony No. 3; suddenly the tumblers fell into place and I was in. His complete Naxos cycle, recorded with the Malmö SO in the noughties, is still only available in separate instalments, complete with Schmidt fillers. It’s a traversal I’ve come to admire a great deal. From there I moved on to Neeme Järvi’s 4-CD box, now shorn of the original discs’ (non-Schmidt) extras. Those performances were recorded in Detroit and Chicago between 1989 and 1996 (Chandos). I’ve yet to explore any of Fabio Luisi’s Schmidt, but that’s definitely on my to-do list (Querstand).

As for Paavo Järvi, he’s certainly impressed me in recent years, his thoughtful reappraisal of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony (Pentatone) and his splendid coupling of The Execution of Stepan Razin and The Song of the Forests especially welcome (Erato). Indeed, those albums, recorded with the Russian National Orchestra and Estonian forces respectively, are valuable additions to the DSCH discography. The Schmidt symphonies were recorded live with the Frankfurt Radio SO between 2013 and 2018. The performances, split over three CDs, are not available separately, although downloaders should be able to cherry-pick if they so desire.

I was slightly disconcerted to discover that Järvi fils and his band are so closely and brightly caught in Symphony No. 1. Conventional wisdom suggests allowances have to be made when recording live concerts - Sinaisky’s entire cycle and Järvi père’s First and Fourth were recorded under studio conditions - yet one only has to sample, say, Andris Nelsons’ superbly engineered Boston Shostakovich series to realise such compromises aren’t inevitable. All the more disappointing, then, that DG’s approach in Frankfurt robs the performance of so much depth and detail, the latter qualities that make the Naxos and Chandos productions so immersive and so interesting.

Whatever my reservations about the Frankfurt performance, I have no qualms about the orchestras playing. The Detroit and Malmö ensembles are also in good shape, but where they really outshine their German counterparts is in the consistent warmth and affection they bring to this music. Of course, it helps that both their recordings, sensibly presented, are so easy on the ear. It’s about imagination, too, Sinaisky finding an air of pageantry in the first movement - echoes of Tannhäuser, perhaps - that eludes his rivals. Not only that, his account of the Straussian second movement is most beautifully shaped and projected. Most important, he and the elder Järvi deliver nicely scaled and highly engaging performances that maintain a strong narrative thread from start to finish. (That said, Paavo’s reading has its moments, the end of the finale especially exciting.) But what makes Sinaisky’s album even more attractive is the inclusion of orchestral excerpts from Schmidt’s opera Notre Dame, composed in 1904 (Introduction, Interlude and Carnival Music). A no-brainer, really.

Moving on to Symphony No. 2, and the FRSO are in blistering form at the start, with a sound to match; the timps, bass drum and tam-tam are particularly well caught. By contrast, quieter passages are discreetly - and feelingly - done, as are the chamber-like sections of the long, multi-faceted central movement. Paavo’s not as pliant - or as ‘aerated’ - as Sinaisky, but at least the playing has some wit and character. Elsewhere, the younger Järvi drives the music harder than I’d like, the perspective-flattening effects of which aren’t helpful in a score that brims with so much colour and ear-pricking detail.

Neeme’s performance - he’s in Chicago for this one - is broadly conceived and intuitively paced, the CSO wonderfully refined throughout. Ultimately, though, Sinaisky and Järvi père are much more expressive in this symphony - more nuanced, too. This doesn’t mean they eschew excitement, it’s just that they don’t overplay it. In toto, Sinaisky is my first choice here, his reading well recorded and delightfully rounded; the elder Järvi isn’t far behind. And while DG throw in a four-and-a-half-minute filler - the Intermezzo from Notre Dame - Naxos include the fourteen-minute Fuga Solemnis, for organ, sixteen wind instruments and percussion (1937). And what fun it is too, soloist Anders Johansson playing with commendable zest from start to finish.

Symphony No. 3 holds a special place in my affections, not least because it was my way into Schmidt’s oeuvre. How fresh and utterly spontaneous Sinaisky makes it sound, the recording crisp and clear. I had hoped Paavo and the FRSO’s switch to the Alte Oper for the Third and Fourth would pay sonic dividends at least, but while the first movement of No. 3 unearths more detail than hitherto, the performance feels oddly synthetic. Besides, the upfront, rather airless sound is just too overbearing, tolerable only at much lower volume settings than I’m used to. (DG aren’t alone in this, some recent Chandos/Bergen releases are similarly afflicted.)

Once again, Paavo gives a tantalising hint at what might have been, the close of the second movement of No. 3 sensitively handled, the rhythms of the next delectably pointed. However, Sinaisky and Neeme - the latter still in Chicago - both display a real sense of purpose and a surer sense of style. That, in turn, makes their readings of this and the other symphonies seem very coherent and - perhaps more important - so full of incident. In short, just perfect for those coming to this music for the first time. Sinaisky rounds off his album with a fine account of Schmidt’s mighty Chaconne in D minor (1925, orch. 1931). As so often, the Russian strikes a pleasing balance between formal rigour and the Romantic impulse. Indeed, it’s revealing talents like these - and more besides - that give him the palm here, too.

Finally, Symphony No. 4, the one that frustrated me for so long. From the start, it’s clear Paavo, his players and the engineers are going for broke. Discipline and power are the key elements here, but those overblown, scruff-grabbing climaxes are now getting a tad tedious. After that, it’s such a relief to immerse oneself in the kinder, gentler performances from Sinaisky and Järvi père, the latter back in Detroit. Their approach to Schmidt’s quieter moments is far more innig than Paavo’s. My only criticism of Neeme’s otherwise fine Chandos Fourth - it’s hardly a deal-breaker - is the fierce treble in some tuttis. Musically rewarding as that version undoubtedly is, it’s Sinaisky - unerringly propelled, the symphony’s ‘heartbeat’ a constant, affirming presence - who deserves the top spot here. Not even the mildly disappointing account of the half-hour Variations on a Hussar’s Song (1930) can take the shine off this splendid Naxos series.

Paavo’s set, admirable in parts, is just too variable to recommend; for greater consistency, depth of feeling and better sound, look elsewhere.

Dan Morgan

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

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