Paavo Järvi’s Really Fine Schmidt Symphonies

Review by: Victor Carr Jr


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Paavo Järvi joins his father Neeme as one of the few conductors to record all four symphonies by Austrian composer Franz Schmidt. Symphony No. 4 is by far the most performed and recorded, as well as the best work of the bunch. Like Josef Suk before him, Schmidt transformed the pain of personal tragedy (the death of his daughter) into a symphonic composition of exceptional beauty and deep feeling.

Zubin Mehta’s classic recording, a measured, Brucknerian reading, evokes the music’s darker emotions, while at the other interpretive end, Franz Welser-Möst’s taut and swift rendition presents the work as elegiac rather than funereal. Paavo Järvi’s reading comes in between these two extremes, and his well-chosen tempos and naturally-breathed phrasing make for a cogent and near-ideal presentation of this music. Many individual moments, like the heartfelt cello solo in the second movement and the poignant, perfectly-played opening and closing trumpet solos, contribute to this uniquely persuasive performance. The Frankfurt Radio Symphony may not have the string sheen of the Vienna Philharmonic (Mehta), but the players’ palpable commitment is quite moving.

The second-best symphony is No. 2, and here Järvi runs up against papa Neeme who, with a highly-enthused Chicago Symphony (whose players clearly relish unfamiliar music) produce a formidable performance. As per usual, the elder Järvi plays it quite fast, and while Paavo’s less athletic tempos allow for more audible detail, and his brass is better balanced in the ensemble (probably the way Schmidt intended), there’s no denying that the Chicago brass is just stunning in this music. That said, Järvi fils is more attuned to the composer’s colorful and characteristic woodwind writing, which really enlivens the theme-and-variations second movement. Schmidt’s Notre Dame: Intermezzo makes a for a fine encore following the symphony.

Schmidt’s pretty and harmless Symphony No. 3 was submitted to, and won, Second Prize in the Schubert Centennial Contest of 1928. The work’s predominantly pastoral mood is reminiscent of Schubert’s Fifth symphony (albeit without its good tunes), and despite the somewhat dissonant harmonies in the slow movement’s main theme, the overall impression is one of perfumed languor. Järvi enlivens the music’s bright instrumental colors, particularly so in the first movement and Finale, and provides more clarity and concision than his dad, whose Chicago Symphony feels like overkill in this work.

Like many a first symphony, Schmidt’s No. 1 gives little indication of his later style, especially in the first movement, with its prominent echoes of Wagner (especially in the brass writing) and Schumann. The third-movement scherzo puts us on familiar territory–the busy triple-meter string writing points ahead to the Second and Fourth symphonies, while Schmidt’s chromatic neo-baroque harmonic style reminds of No. 3. Järvi makes a strong case for the symphony (as do the Frankfurt brass), which nonetheless leaves the impression of Schmidt as an interesting composer with “potential”.

Throughout, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony plays handsomely, with excellent work from all sections and soloists. Still, I can’t help wondering how these pieces would have sounded with Järvi’s former orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony, and its more aggressive playing style. The live recordings (made in Frankfurt’s Alte Oper and hr-Sendessal) sound very fine, though in No. 2 woodwind and brass detail occasionally gets blurred in the resonant acoustic. In all, this is a highly enjoyable release. If you want a single set of Schmidt symphonies, young Järvi’s is the one to get. But I suggest you also get the recommend recordings of Nos. 2 & 4 as supplements.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Symphony No. 4: Mehta (Decca); Welser-Möst (Warner), Symphony No. 2: Järvi (Chandos)

    Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi

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