Proms: Franz Schmidt, alias Frank Smith

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The Independent Culture
BOURNEMOUTH

SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA: SCHMIDT

ROYAL ALBERT HALL

THE Orchestra, in its heyday under Sir Dan Godfrey (1868-1939), was the pioneering orchestra of the early 1900s. To this sea-swept retirement outpost on the Dorset-Hampshire border many an aspiring English composer turned for help in getting new works, spurned in London or even Manchester, a first or repeat hearing.

The symphonist Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) is in a sense another Elgar - albeit an Austrian one; while the current Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, which on Wednesday gave the first BBC Proms performance of - amazingly - any Schmidt work, sounds in finer fettle than perhaps at any time in its long history. Even as Rattle bows out of transfigured Birmingham, it is clear that the Bournemouth orchestra's new musical director, Yakov Kreizberg, the dynamic young firebrand from Berlin's Komische Oper, has the gifts to take his present players to a comparable world-class eminence.

Watching Kreizberg at work on Schmidt's Fourth, and last, symphony is like watching one of the current greats - Carlos Kleiber, perhaps, or Valery Gergiev conducting the St Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) Philharmonic. Even, perhaps especially, in rare repertoire, Kreizberg is breathtakingly well-prepared, and shrewdly self-effacing. He coaxes energetically without getting in the way. He is individual, but never autistic.

Why Franz Schmidt? (With a name like "Frank Smith", he sounds intriguingly like a cross between Jedermann and Andy Capp.) Scarcely a year ago, even Kreizberg had heard, or indeed seen, scarcely a bar of this phenomenal late-Romantic composer's music. It was Franz Welser-Most - now departed from London - and the LPO (ravishingly recorded on EMI) who relaunched the Schmidt revival over here. Yet in his home city of Vienna, this Hungarian/Slovak- born composer is almost as familiar as Bruckner, Mahler or the Spanish Riding School. Despite the disgrace of his last two cantatas, both "pinched" by the Nazis - the first, in 1938-9, foretelling Armageddon; the latter applauding the Anschluss (with hindsight, about as politically incorrect as one could get), Schmidt recovered in Austrian popular favour, and his music was promoted by the likes of Knappersbutsch and Karl Bohm, Furtwangler, Clemens Krauss and (most famously, with Fritz Wunderlich in tow) Mitropoulos.

The Fourth, composed in a time of deep personal sorrow, is usually seen as the greatest, as well as most tragic, of Schmidt's four symphonies. His own instrument - he was a cellist in the Vienna Philharmonic under Mahler - provides the moment of most touching extended elegy, where the material of the first section of this single-movement, cyclic symphony miraculously metamorphoses into an extended cello theme of such exquisite beauty that Richard Strauss would have given his eye teeth to have composed it (he did, in effect, a decade later, with Metamorphosen). The opening trumpet theme, despite its optimistic cadence, is desolation and puzzlement personified. Schmidt deals in long drawn-out, Wagner-inspired chromatic themes every bit as cogent as those of the Tristan and Parsifal-imbued Elgar. His fragmenting of them is arguably less skilled than Elgar's. Rather, he prefers to work with recurrent but constantly shifting building- blocks, akin to, say, Bruckner's Fifth or Schubert's Ninth.

I can't imagine a more lucid Proms first outing for Schmidt than that given him by these dedicated Bournemouth players. The dozen or so first violins phrased for Kreizberg like Bachian angels. The hushed, sensitively phrased cello solo (Timothy Walden) was breathtaking, and the later passage for massed cellos likewise. The dry, rather than sensuous, opening trumpet melody (Peter Turnbull) gave way to a melting warmth in the closing bars, whose eloquent and unexpected farewell had even the usually clap-happy Promenaders foxed. Thanks largely to Kreizberg's inspired restraint, the whole symphonic argument, even in the darkly Wagnerian funeral march, emerged with the crystal clarity of chamber music, just as the composer intended. There were few climaxes. When they arrived, they were not blaring, or fancy, or kitsch, but telling, and often enough, terrifying.

The Bournemouth team will take their stunning performance to the Vienna Musikverein next month. Talk about coals to Newcastle. But lucky Vienna.

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