FIRST NIGHT

Franz Schmidt's Symphony No 4
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The Independent Culture
The Proms, entering its last week, has profitably featured the works of the Polish composer, Karol Syzmanowski. Now there is a chance to hear another 20th-century composer who has never had a single work of his played at the Proms during the festival's 100-year history.

The man in question is Franz Schmidt. Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1874, the same year as Schoenberg and Ives, Schmidt is a far more conservative figure than either of those Modernist iconoclasts. In fact, he deliberately distanced himself from the avant-garde. Four symphonies, a number of chamber works, several compositions for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, and the operas Fredigundis and Notre Dame consolidate a Late Romantic style.

Schmidt was a notable cellist, conductor and academic, tasks which prevented him from prolific composition. His most fruitful period took place during his last 15 years (he died in 1939), a phase which culminated in his magnificent oratorio, The Book with Seven Seals (see Record Review opposite), based on Revelations and premiered just months before his death. It also yielded, a few years earlier, the Symphony No 4. Much of Schmidt's lavish music has an ebullient vitality to it, yet not the Fourth with its consistently tragic tone. The piece grew out of Schmidt's profound sorrow following the death of both his daughter and his grandchild in childbirth. The work compounds the standard four-movement symphonic form into a continuous and subtly shifting whole, from the funereal opening adagio to the rondo finale, a hustling dance with destiny. The haunting unaccompanied trumpet melody with which the symphony begins is returned to at the end.

Mahler is often cited as representing a farewell to the Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition. If so, perhaps Schmidt's own last symphony offers a postscript, being aptly premiered in the year that Hitler came to power. And in that final trumpet fade-out there also seems to be a fascinating parallel to another symphony which has been played at the Proms this summer - Elgar's Third, in Anthony Payne's elaboration. Like Elgar's last symphonic product, Schmidt's Fourth also demands to be heard.

Yakov Kreizberg conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Schmidt's Fourth Symphony, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0171-589 8212) 9 Sept, 7.30pm

Duncan Hadfield

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