Bychkov & Vienna’s Soft-Edged Schmidt

Review by: Victor Carr Jr


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 7

Franz Schmidt’s Symphony No. 2 has been in the Vienna Philharmonic’s repertory since its premiere under the composer’s baton in 1913. Knowing this, and with expectations raised by Zubin Mehta’s emotionally intense 1971 Vienna recording of Schmidt’s Symphony No. 4, it’s a little disappointing that Semyon Bychkov appears disinclined to impose his own personality on the orchestra’s traditional style in his rendition, sumptuously played as it is.

Vienna’s trademark bright, sweet string tone, and vibrant, piquant winds lend much color and warmth to the Allegretto con variazioni movement, as well as to the Finale’s long preamble. All well and good for those passages, but this symphony features much bravura brass writing in the outer movements, and the Vienna brass playing, however rich-toned and organ-like, fails to stir and excite. A quick listen to the Chicago Symphony under Järvi makes plain the difference. The Chicago brass delivers an unashamedly brilliant and bold performance that lingers in the mind long after. Admittedly, this a more modern sound than Schmidt envisioned, and what Vienna offers is likely closer to the composer’s intentions, but it’s thrilling to hear nonetheless.

However, the Chandos recording overdoes the reverberation (and for Bychkov, Sony’s distant live recording blurs detail in loud, tutti passages). The most natural-sounding recording comes from Naxos, featuring a very good performance by Vassily Sinaisky and Malmö Symphony. Sinaisky pretty much covers the same ground as Bychkov, but what distinguishes his rendition is the Malmö brass, which, while not possessing Chicago’s “cinematic” quality, plays with real power and gusto.

Richard Strauss’ Dreaming by the Fireside, one of his Four Symphonic Interludes from Intermezzo, is harmonically and texturally similar to the gentler passages of Schmidt’s symphony. It’s harmless enough, but Bychkov would have done better to play it first, as a mild appetizer. Playing last makes it seem like a bland dessert after the main meal.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Järvi (Chandos); Sinaisky (Naxos)

    Vienna Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov

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