After Mahler and Strauss, my favourite late Romantic among German and Austrian composers is Franz Schmidt (1874-1939). Virtuoso pianist, Vienna Court Opera Orchestra cellist, and distinguished teacher of several subjects at the Vienna Conservatory, Schmidt composed in every major genre. Of his four symphonies the Second (1913) is charming, grand and dark in turn. The Vienna Philharmonic under the masterful Semyon Bychkov shines in this Sony release, especially the strings from the first movement’s opening “bubbly stream” onwards. The brass section predominates later with horns that amaze; contrapuntal ingenuities and vivid contrasts of tone colour abound in woodwinds from the piccolo on down. Bychkov, the orchestra and the recording team achieve admirable pacing and balance, for example where everything gears down darkly till only soft tam-tam strokes are heard before the opening passage’s return.
I believe there are subtle allusions to composers with Vienna associations. In the second movement, an ingenious theme and variations, the first chord references that of Brahms’ Haydn Variations in key, chord, and melody; the finale fugato begins with the E-flat major two-note horn call of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony (Bruckner was Schmidt’s counterpoint teacher). Though ingrained in Viennese musical life, Schmidt became his own joyous and tragic compositional personality, and comments like “sounds like Richard Strauss” are tiresomely shallow. In any case the disc includes the interlude known as Dreaming by the Fireside from Strauss’s opera Intermezzo (1924), allowing comparison.