Symphonies – No.1 in E (1896-99)a; No.2 in E-flat (1911-13)b; No.3 in A (1927-28)c; No.4 in C (1932-33)d. Notre Dame – Intermezzo (1903)e
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Live recordings at HR Sendesaal, Frankfurt in bMarch 2013 and aMarch 2017; Alte Oper, Frankfurt in cFebruary 2014 and deApril 2018
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: October 2020
CD No: DG 483 8336 (3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours 1 minute
Paavo Järvi has emerged among the most assiduous recording artists of today, threatening to outdo his father in symphonic cycles (witness his Beethoven, Brahms, Nielsen, and Sibelius for RCA). Almost three decades after Neeme set down the Schmidt Symphonies in Chicago and Detroit (Chandos), Paavo in Frankfurt now releases his take on a cycle also tackled by Ludovit Rajter in Bratislava (Opus), Fabio Luisi in Leipzig (Querstand) or Vassily Sinaisky in Malmö (Naxos) without yet entering the repertoire outside the composer’s native Austria.
Järvi takes a long-breathed of the introduction to the First Symphony, the opening movement (its repeat taken) unfolding at a lively tempo flexible enough to give the easeful second theme room to breathe; with no lack of focus during a development as seems almost a paraphrase of the exposition, before a clinching coda. The clarinet melody that launches the slow movement is touchingly rendered, Järvi duly intensifying the rapture and anguish encountered in what is the work’s most prescient section. He also plays up the Scherzo’s bustling gait with its teasing pauses, keeping a firm grip on the Trio as this subsides into a reverie whose enchantment never cloys. Rather dutifully fulfilling its formal remit, the Finale’s trenchancy of purpose overcomes some less than distinctive material en route to a close as brings the work decisively full-circle.
This account of the Second Symphony is among the swiftest yet, appropriate to the opening movement whose polyphonic intricacy can easily become moribund if not integrated within a cumulative design; something Järvi recognises while also harnessing its rhetoric to powerful effect, not least in the coda’s oblique trajectory. Almost as successful is the central Allegretto, its theme of disarming naivete channelled into eight diverse variations, by turns animated and soulful (the eighth generous in its Hungarian pathos), towards a ‘Scherzo and Trio’ where the rumbustious and ruminative find enticing accord. The Finale, however, feels a shade literal in the unforced yet methodical emergence from its placid initial theme, via the fugal interplay of motifs and textures, to the chorale that Järvi builds to an eventually resplendent apotheosis.
Following Schmidt’s grandest and most opulent Symphony with the Intermezzo from his first opera Notre Dame risks anti-climax (at least for CD listeners). It could have been placed after the First Symphony that precedes it chronologically; better still to have included it as part of the Suite which both Sinaisky and Yakov Kreizberg (Pentatone) have demonstrated to be an effective sequence. Järvi brings no mean pathos to this lollipop, shot through with Hungarian inflections, if not quite matching the suavity of Herbert von Karajan’s famous account (also DG).
Equally swift is the Third Symphony, but here Järvi’s tempos are ideally suited to this most Classical of the cycle – a tribute to Schubert of luminous poise and eloquence. The opening Allegro may not be ‘molto moderato’, but its deftly contrasted themes yield expressive unity intensified (after the exposition repeat) by its tensile development then surging coda. What follows is an Adagio in mood rather than pacing, a sustained intermezzo whose crepuscular harmonies and yearning central span have tangible ambivalence. Not so the Scherzo, with its vaunting outer sections and wistfully elegant Trio. Järvi rightly views the Finale’s speculative Lento introduction as the work’s only truly ‘slow’ music; after it, the Allegro brings impetus and no little nonchalance as it pursues a determined course to the tersely affirmative ending.
Whatever its relative familiarity, the Fourth Symphony remains a challenge in integrating its four movements into an unbroken yet cumulative whole. Järvi sets an ideal tempo for the first of them, its elegiac trumpet theme no less intently wrought than that for strings proceeding it. After developmental upheavals, the Adagio’s ineffable cello melody heads inexorably to the work’s emotional apex with its funereal tread then gently consoling coda. Momentum picks up naturally going into the agile Scherzo with its capering demeanour and blithe indifference of its Trios to a catastrophe that, when it arrives, proves as shocking as it is unexpected. From here, the music retraces its steps via horns and woodwind for a reprise which Järvi ensures is informed by the pain of experience – Itself distilled into acceptance with the inward postlude.
How to sum up? Save for a slightly under-characterised Second, Järvi has the firm measure of this music and secures consistently fine playing from the orchestra of which he was principal conductor during 2006-13, aided by decent sound and succinct booklet notes by Adam Gellen. Rajter’s insights are undermined by indifferent playing, and Luisi’s broader tempos can be too much so, while Sinaisky’s sympathetic readings all feature one of Schmidt’s shorter orchestral pieces. Those who favour a Järvi in these Symphonies will find that Paavo is the one to go for.