Opulent Schmidt & Mahler from MDG & Channel

SCHMIDT: SYMPHONY NO. 2, R. STRAUSS: FESTLICHES PRÄLUDIUM, Orchester Bonn, Stefan Blunier/MDG SACD 937 2006-6  Those with a penchant for sumptuous and grandiloquent late-Romantic orchestral works should investigate without delay this latest MDG release from Stefan Blunier and his fine Beethoven Orchester Bonn that couples the 2nd Symphony of Franz Schmidt with Richard Strauss’s imposing Festliches Präludium Op 61. Both these works received their premieres in 1913 and with this recording make their debut on SACD in high resolution sound. By 1913 Richard Strauss had already completed his major orchestral works and become pre-occupied with writing operas, but he still accepted various commissions including one for the consecration of the then newly built Vienna Konzerthaus. He composed this Festliches Präludium (Festival Prelude) on a lavish scale to suit the splendour of the new concert hall. The orchestral forces Strauss requires are gargantuan and include the use of an organ – played here by Christoph Anselm Noll – to further emphasise the grandeur of the occasion. It comes as no surprise that, due to the expense of programming this work, performances are rare, but though the piece has appeared on disc before Blumier’s uninhibited account of it captured in rich multi-channel sound does full justice to the excesses of this undeniably overblown but thrilling piece. The neglect of Franz Schmidt’s symphonic works outside his native Austria is perplexing. Only the last of his four symphonies appears fitfully on concert programmes, but fortunately has received a number of fine recordings on disc including one from Stefan Blunier that appeared in 2010. The 2nd Symphony heard here is a wonderful composition; sunny and optimistic in disposition with an abundance of heart-warming melody and clear lines that belie its contrapuntal complexity. The contrast with the outpourings of grief that characterises much of the 4th Symphony could hardly be more striking. The work is scored for a very large orchestra that includes eight horns, four trumpets and five clarinets, but Schmidt uses these forces with exceptional skill and surprising delicacy. The form of the work is also most original. Schmidt casts the Symphony in three movements, the second and longest being a brilliantly inventive set of ten variations on a simple folk-like theme, the last two of which represent the work’s scherzo and trio. Blunier’s tempi are more expansive than say Järvi (Chandos) or Sinaisky (Naxos), but do allow all sections of the Bonn orchestra to luxuriate in the music’s rich textures (including the fiendishly difficult baroque-like figurations that permeate the opening movement) without losing impetus or focus. There is little doubt that Blunier’s scrupulously prepared and well-executed account of the score should make many new friends for this undoubted masterpiece. Both works were recorded at a concert given in the Beethovenhalle, Bonn on May 13th 2016 with what was presumably a patch session the following day. MDG’s recording (5.1/Stereo/2+2+2) is opulent and spacious with a convincing concert hall perspective. It captures not only the huge climaxes of the Strauss piece with ease, but also such telling details as Schmidt’s frequent use of soft tam-tam strokes in the Symphony. It is to be hoped that these artists will, in due course, provide us with the remaining two Schmidt symphonies on SACD as both are well worth investigating. In the meantime this attractive and valuable issue can be recommended with confidence.

MAHLER: SYMPHONY NO. 3, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer/Channel Classics SACD CCS SA 38817 (2 discs) Ivan Fischer’s survey of the Mahler Symphonies with his incomparable Budapest Festival Orchestra began with the release of the 6th Symphony in 2005 that immediately marked him out as a Mahler interpreter of considerable stature. Subsequent highly praised releases of Symphonies 1, 2, 4, 5 and 9 over the past eight years have been eagerly awaited, and this latest release of Mahler’s mighty 3rd Symphony, recorded in September 2016, will further cement his reputation as one of the most charismatic Mahler conductors of our time. The public’s appetite for more and more performances and recordings of Mahler’s works shows no signs of abating, in spite of the availability of a plethora of versions that one might imagine would suit all tastes. There are, however, three main factors that make these Channel Classic recordings stand out in what is a very crowded field. First is Fischer’s perceptive and probing musicianship, born of a long career on the podium, that ensures his interpretations possess an individuality stemming from a deep understanding of, and respect for, the music he conducts. The second factor is the character of the Budapest Festival Orchestra whose consummate musicians always play with a fierce and absolute commitment for their Musical Director and founder. Finally it is the superb state-of-the-art sound quality achieved by Jared Sacks in the fine acoustic of the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, Palace of Arts, Budapest. The 5.0 channel DSD recording providing almost unrivalled realism, clarity and impact to the music – essential in Mahler. It is also perhaps worth mentioning that Fischer’s recordings are made in the wake of many live performances with his orchestra in concert halls across Europe, so the conductor and his players are able to refine their interpretations before finally committing them to disc. The first of this two-disc SACD set contains the work’s gigantic first movement (33.14) while the remainder of the work occupies the second SACD. This sensible division is adopted on most, though not all, versions – those by Chailly, Tilson Thomas and Boulez being three notable exceptions. Fischer is fully cognizant of Mahler’s marking, Kräftig; Entschieden (Vigorous; Decisive), for Part 1 of the Symphony. From the cleanly articulated horn fanfares that open the movement the forward thrust of his pacing is at once apparent. The lugubrious trombone solo is superbly delivered by the BFO player, thrillingly rasping on its first appearance and mellow at its re-appearance towards the end of the movement, and is just one example of the quality of the musicians that populate this orchestra. ‘Summer marches in’, the composer’s original title for this section, is buoyant and joyous with considerable emphasis on the percussion – vividly reproduced cymbal clashes and uninhibited snare drum tattoos all add to the sense of a marching rabble that Mahler aimed for. Needless to say Fischer’s arrangement of the orchestra with antiphonally seated violins, as Mahler would have expected, greatly enhances the lucidity of this complex and remarkable musical edifice. The following movement with its lighter scoring is marked ‘Tempo di Menuetto’ and was originally subtitled “ What the flowers in the meadow tell me”. Its carefree pastoral serenity is eloquently conveyed here with many beautifully turned instrumental solos and subtle use of rubato while the scurrying fast sections testify to the virtuosity of the orchestra’s strings. Mahler’s ‘Comodo; Scherzando’ is based initially on the theme from his setting of an allegorical ‘Wunderhorn’ song ‘Ablösung im Sommer’ about a nightingale and a cuckoo that has fallen to its death. Fischer adopts an appropriately easy-going tempo for the opening section of the movement and his players relish the humour and parody implicit in the music. The magical trio sections that feature an off-stage ‘posthorn’ (flügelhorn) are balanced with great care, the immaculately voiced solo instrument cushioned by soft violins providing one of many a breathtaking moments on this set. In the fourth movement the human voice appears for the first time in the symphony with a setting of a passage from Nietzsche’s philosophical novel ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’. Here it is sung securely with commendably clear diction and sensitivity by the alto Gerhild Romberger. It could be argued that at a timing of 8.36 for this movement Fischer ignores Mahler’s marking of ‘Sehr langsam’ yet if a conductor adopts too slow a tempo it can all too easily drag interminably or even fall apart. For this listener Fischer’s faster pulse works in a way that some versions do not. In the orchestral passages he does adopt, without undue exaggeration, Mahler’s strange marking of “hinaufziehen” for the striking oboe slides that many conductors ignore. The brief fifth movement, a three-part song, introduces the ladies of the superb ‘Chor des Bayerischen Rundunk and the Cantemus Children’s Choir from Nyiregyháza who deliver their ‘bimm bamms’ with spirit and crisp rhythmic heft. Eventually human voices are left behind as Mahler’s achingly beautiful final movement marked Langsam; Ruhevoll; Empfunden (Slowly; Peacefully; Expressively) begins on the strings. Here Fischer is much less overtly emotional than many of his rivals. His pacing at the start of the movement, though faster than many, (Boulez rather than Bernstein), is not lacking in serenity thanks to the finely nuanced playing of his players. He builds the movement confidently through the three climaxes that recall the music of Part 1 to reach an exalted apotheosis, glowing yet free from both sentimentality and bombast. Those who have enjoyed Fischer’s earlier Mahler recordings will need no urging to acquire this one. In both musical and sonic terms it provides a further criterion for past and future recordings of this symphony. Highly recommended.