Franz Schmidt (1874-1939), born in what is now Slovakia, began his musical career as a cellist with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (later the Vienna Philharmonic), often playing under Gustav Mahler. He was also an accomplished pianist and taught both piano and cello at the Vienna Academy of Music and Performing Arts. His best-known work, at least in Germany, is the oratorio The Book with Seven Seals.

Schmidt’s four symphonies are generally considered to represent the last gasp of German high Romanticism. They cover his entire composing career, the First appearing in 1899 and the Fourth in 1934. They are traditional in harmony and orchestration, although the Fourth has an unusual structure: its four movements are played without a break, and are encompassed by a plaintive solo trumpet line, appearing out of the mists at the beginning and again at end. 

Schimdt’s symphonies have been recorded as a complete set a few times, and there is a good reason for this, as they differ stylistically from each other. The First is a solid example of the late-Romantic symphony, with Schumann and Bruckner behind it (but without Brucknerian breadth). The Second employs a lusher orchestral palette, almost beating Richard Strauss at his own game, and is notable for its luxuriant string writing.

The Third is on a smaller scale: It was one of the works submitted for a prize in 1928 to commemorate the centenary of Schubert’s death, and its lighter touch and pastoral feel mark Schmidt’s attempt to be Schubertian. (This symphony is better than the winner, Kurt Atterberg’s Sixth.) Finally, the Fourth is the deepest, most personal of the four. During the early part of its composition Schmidt’s young daughter Emma died, and he conceived the work as a memorial. The centrepiece is the slow movement, with a lovely yearning theme on solo cello, the composer’s own instrument.

This new set with the BBC Symphony Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Jonathan Berman (who specialises in this composer) is beautifully played and warmly recorded. It will appeal to listeners who enjoy a good wallow. Berman is particularly fine in the Fourth Symphony, where he paces the emotional terrain perfectly without forsaking the contrast of the march-like scherzo. His primary competition is a recent set on DG with Paavo Järvi conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Both orchestras are on form, and sound leaves nothing to be desired. The Welsh orchestra’s sound is smoother edged in keeping with Berman’s approach, where each of the four works takes longer than other recorded performances. This works least well in the Third, where I prefer Järvi’s swifter tempos. (Berman takes 51 minutes, as opposed to Järvi’s 41.) While each conductor provides additional orchestral music from Schmidt’s opera Notre Dame, Järvi’s set runs to three CDs against Berman’s four.

We should not forget two recordings featuring the Vienna Philharmonic, the orchestra that “owns” these scores: a famous No. 4 on Decca with Zubin Mehta, and a voluptuous No. 2 on Sony with Semyon Bychkov. Both have special qualities of their own and are ideal supplements to either of these complete sets.

Listen on Apple Music

Composer: Schmidt
Works: Symphonies Nos. 1 to 4
Performers: BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Jonathan Berman
Label: ACCENTUS 80544 (4CD)

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