Simon Holt National Orchestra of Wales (Image credit: John Nguyen)

Simon Holt: BBC National Orchestra of Wales | Live

Steph Power was at the BBC Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff to review a BBC National Orchestra of Wales commission by composer-in-association Simon Holt.

According to his biographer, Norbert Tschulik, the composer Franz Schmidt was colour blind; only able to see in different shades of grey. So the irony seems cruel, then, that his music is often said to be stylistically grey, backwards-looking and – worse – derivative; so different from the progressive modernism emanating from the Vienna of his day. Indeed, Schmidt has not so much been unfashionable post-war as untouchable; a situation not helped by his monumentally ill-judged – and mercifully unfinished – cantata, Grossdeutschland of 1939; a piece which set an unequivocally National Socialist text – albeit whether by choice or coercion remains unclear. Nonetheless, Schmidt  himself and his music have had some prominent champions over the years, not least the redoubtable Hans Keller, who knew a thing or two about Nazism from bitter personal experience, and who remembered Schmidt with fondness and respect from his youth in Vienna.

Politics aside, Schmidt could certainly be found guilty as charged as a musical reactionary, for he persisted in adherence to an ‘outmoded’ style which, for many listeners still today, is all-too redolent of Brahms and, especially, of Bruckner. Schmidt was born, in fact, the same year as Arnold Schoenberg, in Pressburg in 1874, and the two men grew acquainted in Vienna, where Schmidt was well known as an excellent cellist and pianist; leading a much-praised performance of Pierrot lunaire no less, from the keyboard in 1929. Schoenberg is on record as remarking merely that Schmidt had ‘too much talent’, purportedly baffling his target, but implying that Schmidt might have done better had he been forced to struggle for his art – presumably, like Schoenberg himself did on many levels.

Tonight’s programme from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales featured Schmidt’s best known and most respected work, his Symphony No. 4 of 1932-3, in a programme that was either cunningly devised or heavy-handed depending on your point of view. Personally, I plump for the former despite the preponderance of shared, weighty themes of requiems and suffering women that I will come to. For it placed Schmidt’s work in Viennese context with Berg’s Violin Concerto; by far the most popular and ‘approachable’ work of the mature so-called ‘Second Viennese School’, together with a world premiere by BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ outgoing Associate Composer Simon Holt, thereby giving the programme an interesting slant from a ‘new music’ perspective. ‘New music’, after all, can be a relative term, as contemporaries of Schmidt were very well aware.

A pity then, that the enduringly iconic Berg Violin Concerto which opened the concert did not galvanise from the start. Indeed, the performance only really took off from the second movement; notably from the Adagio onwards, whence the soloist, Baiba Skride, took charge. Skride was in command of her own, virtuosic part throughout, applying her rich, full tone with spirit and energy. And there were some lovely, poignant touches too from the orchestra. But conductor Thierry Fischer seemed to proceed by section rather than finding the lines and phrasing which are so necessary to this concerto’s through-momentum and coherence. He made little distinction at times, for instance, between Hauptstimme, Nebenstimme (main and secondary voices – some of which are rhythmic motifs) and minor colouristic parts, so that tiny details of Berg’s orchestration seemed to take on undue importance – a distraction not helped by some occasionally awry ensemble, particularly in ritardando passages. But Skride effectively took the reins after the initial rendition of Bach’s quoted chorale Es ist genug (It is enough), physically turning towards the upper strings to lead them in an extended passage of jointly electrifying intensity which reached its climax at the chorale’s second variation. Only then was it made apparent what might have been for the entire performance.

Berg’s Violin Concerto has become known as his personal requiem. He was ill whilst composing it (in 1935) but died unexpectedly without hearing the work performed. It was written in quick, heartfelt response to the tragic death of Manon Gropius (daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius) aged just eighteen; lending the piece coincidental kinship with Schmidt’s 4th Symphony, which was dedicated to the memory of his daughter Emma after she died unexpectedly following the birth of her first child. In Schmidt’s case, however, the piece signaled a return to health for its composer, who was lifted through its composition from a precarious state of mental near collapse.

If only the protagonist of Simon Holt’s piece, The Yellow Wallpaper, and countless women of her time and predicament, had had similar access to creative work – at all, never mind during periods of mental anguish. The work is a setting of an extraordinarily courageous short story by the early American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1890, extrapolated by David Harsent, further adapted by Holt), who dared to write about her personal experiences of post-natal depression. The story makes for enraging and painful reading, as the woman is shut inside a foul-smelling bedroom with barred windows and wallpaper which ‘color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow.’ Simon Holt responds with music which deftly and sensitively illuminates the woman’s descent into madness with a highly colouristic use of instrumentation, including the literal tearing of rolls of wallpaper and the placing of six sopranos and altos at random within the orchestra; all conveying symptoms of the woman’s fragmentation as she attempts to liberate herself, and the other women she hallucinates, from their entrapment behind the wallpaper. Soprano soloist Elizabeth Atherton sang a challenging part with clarity, poise and feeling – and she was in very fine voice tonight.

Turning to the tricky figure of Schmidt and his Bruckner-esque 4th Symphony, Fischer and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales gave a passionate and pretty well convincing performance on its own terms. For, whilst it is valuable and thought-provoking to hear his music alongside more ‘progressive’ work of the time, it seems ultimately beside the point to compare Schmidt’s work with that of his contemporaries – or even with those elders he emulates – in terms of  relative ‘originality’; indeed it is a moot point how far originality is a reliable touchstone for musical integrity in any case. For a great many excellent composers might fall down if such a criterion were too rigorously applied – Simon Holt included, as the sounds and techniques used in The Yellow Wallpaper are familiar from fifty-odd years of ‘new music’, and yet the piece is surely none the worse for that.

Even so, there is much to admire in Schmidt’s music, which ultimately stems from a Schubertian (rather than Beethovenian) classicism in that it ‘constantly takes pause, recapitulates, reformulates’ as Rudolf Scholz put it (trans. Leo Black), with repetitions that appear straightforward on first hearing, but which are often gradually revealed as subtle re-workings of surprisingly strong themes. Similarly, Schmidt’s ear is finer than his decriers sometimes acknowledge, as he utilises some deft melodic and harmonic turns in the 4th Symphony, for example, to shape an ambitious four movement structure played without a break, but lasting nearly fifty minutes. The idiom might be stylistically anachronistic, but the influences are varied and Schmidt nonetheless manages to evoke a world of feeling without dipping into the sentimental – and without sounding faux in my opinion but, rather, simply elegiac and unforced. Tonight, Guest Principal Victoria Simonson gave eloquent voice to the singing cello solo of the second movement that would have been very close to Schmidt’s heart. Indeed, the whole orchestra felt committed and alive to the music under Fischer’s admirably clear shaping of the work (quite different from his Berg) between its opening and closing trumpet solos.

In recent years, various aspects of the modernism that arose in the first half of the twentieth century have begun to be re-examined – not least the foundational assumption that the contrasting, revolutionary figures of Schoenberg and Stravinsky swept all before them. In any case, whatever one’s opinion of Schmidt’s actual music, I think Keller and other commentators are right to conclude that this seemingly ‘extra-historical’ composer (Bayan Northcott’s term) deserves much greater recognition. For clearly, at the very least – and notwithstanding Schmidt’s once acerbic description of Mahler’s symphonies as ‘cheap novels’ – the Central European romantic symphony did not die with Mahler, however much prevailing music history tries to teach us otherwise.


BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 29 October 2013, BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Alban Berg – Violin Concerto
Simon Holt – The Yellow Wallpaper
Franz Schmidt – Symphony No 4

Conductor: Thierry Fischer
Soprano: Elizabeth Atherton
Violin: Baiba Skride
Members of the BBC Singers

Steph Power is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.