Imagine the musical love child of Strauss and Bruckner: luscious strings, wind chorales, hints of Austrian Ländler, opulent orchestration. This provides an indication of the sound world of Franz Schmidt, whose Second Symphony finally made its Proms debut last night, 102 years after its première. Semyon Bychkov, who has championed Schmidt’s Second in Leipzig, Rome and Vienna, was at the helm. And what better orchestra to persuade us of its merits than the Vienna Philharmonic, the orchestra in which Schmidt himself played cello? An utterly ravishing performance bowled me over.

The Vienna Philharmonic and Semyon Bychkov © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
The Vienna Philharmonic and Semyon Bychkov
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The Second is on a large scale, cast in three movements. There was a decade-long hiatus between Schmidt’s first two symphonies, during which he was employed by the Philharmonic and was occupied composing his first opera, Notre Dame. The Intermezzo from Notre Dame – a syrupy fin de siècle wallow – is possibly Schmidt’s best-known work. There’s a moment in the middle movement of the Second Symphony – a Theme and Variations – where that Intermezzo is nearly recalled. The Viennese strings soared through it gorgeously, making me hanker after Notre Dame for an encore. Schmidt’s theme – first heard as a woodwind chorale – has a lovely Austrian lilt, which is echoed by the strings before ten variations of delightful character follow.

Schmidt’s outer movements are more conventional but contain some fine ideas, not least the pastoral sunshine and broad smiles of the first movement’s opening minutes, before things take a darker turn, with a Straussian storm, before a boisterous close. Woodwinds open the finale with a long fugue, followed by meandering strings. There then comes a long climax and this is where the Vienna brass – including nine horns – excelled. Although drawing on Strauss, Bruckner, Bach (the contrapuntal writing) and even Brahms, there is no trace of Mahlerian hysteria in Schmidt’s symphony… perhaps not surprising given the tense relationship he had with Mahler the conductor. Under Bychkov, the Second emerged as an engaging work, despite its ambitious scale.

The glowing performance of Brahms’ Third Symphony before the interval was as good as any you’ll hear. It was completely unforced and organic – as natural as breathing, thanks to Bychkov’s unfussy direction. This wasn’t turbo-charged playing to show off glamorous strings or paint-stripping brass. Instead, there was chestnut sweetness to the Viennese strings and a mellow horn sound to die for. A beautifully blended woodwind section impressed, fruity contrabassoon aside, especially in the charming Andante.

Semyon Bychkov © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Semyon Bychkov
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The rising three note motto (F-A-F) which opens the symphony spells out “Frei aber froh” (Free but happy). Another F-A-F – “Frei aber fließend” (free but flowing) – sums up Bychkov’s conducting. With the lightest of grips, his baton described florid arcs, whilst his eyes indicated every cue. Bychkov’s Brahms unfolded with great naturalness, never hurried, but never dragging. Everything seemed “just so”, bringing humane warmth to this pastoral score. The third movement Poco allegretto isn’t a million miles away from the Nocturne in Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; woodland magic pervaded the enchanting horn solo. Clouds darkened the horizon in the tempestuous finale before parting for the contemplative, rather than barnstorming, close.

It’s rare to see a conductor bring soloists and sections to their feet at the end of the first half of a concert. Here, Bychkov’s acknowledgements were entirely justified… as was the Vienna Philharmonic’s acknowledgement of Bychkov after the Schmidt by refusing to rise for applause. And the encore? No Notre Dame Intermezzo, but the familiar strains of “Nimrod” from Elgar's Enigma Variations, English nobilmente with a Viennese accent. It provided a gorgeous end to my Prom of the Season... and a teaser for Friday's Dream of Gerontius