Benjamin Baker, Salomon Orchestra / Holly Mathieson – Berg: Violin Concerto & Schmidt: Symphony no.4

Benjamin Baker (violin), Salomon Orchestra / Holly Mathieson

St John’s, Smith Square, London; Monday 16 October 2017

Richard Strauss, arr. Rodziński Der Rosenkavalier – Suite (1945)

Berg Violin Concerto (1935)

Schmidt Symphony No. 4 in C (1933)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Never an ensemble to shirk a challenge, the Salomon Orchestra’s current season continued tonight with what, aesthetically, was an almost perfectly balanced programme – and whose second half brought a timely revival (in the UK) of the Fourth Symphony by Franz Schmidt.

With its catalyst in the tragically unexpected death of his daughter, this work was consciously intended as an ‘in memoriam’ and this is reflected in a formal design as fuses the customary four movements into an unbroken continuity; expressively also in that salient themes return almost as memories being recollected. From which perspective this performance succeeded admirably – Holly Mathieson having the measure of an overall design as though akin to the ‘journey of a life’, whose ending is tangibly (thereby inevitably) anticipated in its beginning.

The exposition’s themes – the first as introspective as the second, with its Magyar overtones, surges forth – were judiciously contrasted, and if the development was a little too rhetorical, it evinced the right cumulative intensity leading into an Adagio whose anguished climax was set into relief by the inward eloquence on either side. A touch stolid rhythmically, the scherzo did not lack impetus as it headed – lemming-like – over its cliff of disaster; in the aftermath of which the reprise gradually re-established momentum as the work came resignedly full-circle.

Its unity within diversity aside, the Fourth Symphony is a stern test of orchestral skill such as the Salomon met head on. The strings evinced the burnished warmth necessary for this music, and while woodwind intonation was on occasion wanting, it did not undermine an orchestral texture through which brass emerged with the appropriate impact. The solo contributions were well taken, not least from trumpeter John Hackett and cellist Kate Valdar, and Mathieson can take considerable credit for her advocacy of a piece whose repertoire status is still not secure.

Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas

Before the interval, Berg’s Violin Concerto had provided the ideal complement. Similarly inspired by the premature death of a woman (in this instance the teenage Manon Gropius), it also focusses on that continuum between life and death, as well as the transfiguration which may result. Here again the four movements, divided into two parts, can be difficult to make cohesive and though Benjamin Baker (above) was not lacking consistency, his rather unvaried tone leading to an expressive uniformity as made this, ultimately, an interpretation in the making.

Mathieson, though, was attentive and always responsive in support. Beforehand, she presided over an enjoyable account of a suite arranged towards the end of the Second World War from Der Rosenkavalier. Probably undertaken by the conductor Artur Rodziński, it takes in several of the highlights from Richard Strauss’s sprawling comedy – rather as does Robert Russell Bennett’s ‘symphonic picture’ derived from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which likewise has the result of reducing the larger work to a succession of glib purple-patches devoid of any real context.

Rendered with aplomb, it was surely possible, even so, to find a more fitting concert-opener – Zemlinsky’s Sinfonietta would have been ideal temporally and conceptually. That aside, this evening was a fine demonstration from the Salomon and auspicious occasion for Mathieson.

For more concert information from the Salomon Orchestra, head to their website

Franz Welser-Möst‘s pioneering recording of Schmidt’s Symphony no.4, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, can be heard on Spotify below:

Under the Surface at the Proms – About Schmidt

Prom 73, 10 September 2015 – Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov at the Royal Albert Hall

schmidt
Semyon Bychkov conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Schmidt at the Royal Albert Hall. Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

Symphony no.2 in E flat major
http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ewbfxj#b068tnhg

‘Some music has to wait before it finds its place in the sun.’

This standout quote comes from an interview in the Proms program with conductor Semyon Bychkov, who conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in this concert of two late Romantic symphonies. The work to which he referred was not BrahmsThird Symphony, which received an occasionally beautiful but ultimately rather lethargic performance in the first half, but the Second Symphony of Franz Schmidt, completed in 1913.

Schmidt’s music has only visited the Royal Albert Hall in full on two previous occasions. The Fourth Symphony, which experienced a revival when Frans Welser-Möst and the London Philharmonic Orchestra won a Gramophone Award for a recording of it in 1996, was heard at the festival in 1998. The relative success of this was followed by the massive sacred piece Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln (The Book of the Seven Seals), which followed a similar path, recorded by Welser-Most in 1996 and performed by the same conductor in 2000.

Schmidt was a wholly suitable choice of composer for the Vienna Philharmonic, who have been revisiting important works in their history this year. Unlike the Brahms third they did not give the premiere of the Schmidt, but the connections with the composer are close. He became a member of the orchestra in 1896, where he played as a cellist – though he did not get on with Gustav Mahler, conductor at the time. Bychkov has championed the Second Symphony with other orchestras, so it made sense to finally bring it to the Vienna Philharmonic. From what I could tell this was their first season performing this or any of his symphonies. So what of the piece itself?

Written on a large scale, the Second clocks in at around 50 minutes. It is in three movements, the large second movement dominating at around half the length of the piece – and it was the centrepiece here. A colourful and richly layered set of variations on a theme, it delights in exploring a number of completely contrasting moods, drawing unusual textures from the orchestra that reveal Schmidt the organ composer. A few of the variations sound uncannily like right hand keyboard figures played at speed, with amazing clarity of colour.

There were clear influences from Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Richard Strauss and Bruckner – yet the music was nothing like a copy of any of these composers. Instead Schmidt managed to stamp his own personality on the piece, shying away from obvious statements so that the mood was at times strangely elusive, on occasion reluctant to commit to emotion with obvious meaning.

It had operatic qualities, for sure, which could be felt in the ebb and flow of the drama and in the swell of the melodies – but the unusually luminous colours dominated, Schmidt using the orchestra in his own individual way. Here he wrote especially taxing parts for violins and violas, but the crowning glory was the massive brass chorale that appeared towards the end and was resolved without fuss.

Only the Proms could have presented this combination of orchestra and music, and should be congratulated for doing so. It was expertly performed and well received, and should go a long way to giving Schmidt’s music the chance of a revival it deserves. It will be interesting to come back in five years and see if anyone else has taken up the baton from Bychkov.

Want to hear more?

A playlist combining the Second and Fourth Symphonies can be heard here:

Meanwhile for the massive Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln (The Book of the Seven Seals), in a recent recording made for Chandos under conductor Kristjan Jarvi, click on the link below:

This is the last Under the Surface feature of this year’s Proms. There will be more explorations of rare repertoire on Arcana in the coming months, both through recordings and concerts. Stay tuned!