August 12, 2010


Schmidt: Symphony No. 3; Chaconne. Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vassily Sinaisky. Naxos. $8.99.

Schmidt: Concertante Variations on a Theme of Beethoven for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra; Piano Concerto in E flat for the Left Hand. Markus Becker, piano; NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Eiji Oue. CPO. $16.99.

     Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) is one of those “in Mahler’s orbit” composers – Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942) is another – whose life story intersects Mahler’s and whose music suffers by comparison. Yet there are periodic expressions of wonder that Schmidt’s (and Zemlinksy’s) music is not better known and more often performed. Schmidt has long had a strong reputation in Austria, and his works garnered international awards as well as frequent performances for some time. Then they declined into almost total obscurity until recently beginning to reemerge on CD. Why?

     These two new releases help provide an answer. They show Schmidt to be a highly skilled craftsman and a knowledgeable orchestrator, but a poor provider of emotional connection and a not-very-adept tunesmith. His works are very well put together, but they generally do not grab a listener and make him or her want to hear more; and despite their grand Romantic scale, their emotive capabilities are limited.

     The most successful pieces on these CDs are the two with the most rigid formal structures: the Chaconne on the Naxos CD and the Concertante Variations on the CPO release. The Chaconne is a monumental and fascinating work that Schmidt wrote for organ in 1925, in C-sharp minor. In 1931, he transposed it to D minor and orchestrated it – for very large forces, including (among other instruments) bass tuba, three timpani and three tamtams in different registers. A chaconne is essentially a set of variations, and the variation form is one in which Schmidt excels. This work is quite extraordinary both in length (close to half an hour) and formal inventiveness, from the original display of the theme in the cellos through a set of four sections based on the Aeolian, Lydian, Dorian and Ionian modes. A compositional tour de force, Schmidt’s Chaconne is a formal, elegant work that calls on the audience’s intellect more than its emotions – and for that reason is exceptionally successful on its own terms. The Malmö Symphony Orchestra, although not quite in the first rank of international ensembles, plays the work deftly, with Vassily Sinaisky highlighting its many fine instrumental touches.

     Equally successful, although in a very different way, are the Concertante Variations on a Theme of Beethoven, written by Schmidt for famed pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), who lost his right arm during World War I. Among all the composers who wrote works for Wittgenstein – Ravel, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Richard Strauss and others – Schmidt was the pianist’s favorite. It is easy to see why. The Concertante Variations are filled with virtuosity and opportunities for display, and they are extremely well constructed, but they are unsubtle and direct in expression and do not distract listeners with any weighty arguments that might lessen attention on the soloist. Yet these variations are not emptily flashy in the manner of salon pieces or works written purely for display purposes – there is genuine musical value to them and quite a lot of variety, from a “Tempo di Bolero” to a concluding fugato. Markus Becker plays them with real style and fervor, and the accompaniment by the NDR Radiophilharmonie under Eiji Oue is first-rate.

     The primary pieces on both these CDs, though, are less appealing, even though they are well worth hearing. Becker and Oue do an equally fine job with Schmidt’s Piano Concerto in E flat, also written for Wittgenstein, but the work is less satisfying despite its massive scale (it runs nearly 45 minutes, more than twice the length of Ravel’s concerto for Wittgenstein). Schmidt clearly thought out the piece very carefully – again, it is easy to see why Wittgenstein liked Schmidt’s work so much that at one point he showed it to Benjamin Britten to indicate how Britten should compose in a way that Wittgenstein would approve. The concerto features grand melodies contrasted with pastoral ones, clever use of harmony, and a final-movement climax consisting of a cadenza of more than 160 measures. But the work feels studied and rather dry, constructed with care rather than passion, and interesting rather than genuinely memorable. It must have been a highly satisfying piece for Wittgenstein to play, but from the audience’s point of view, its strength lies more in its structure than in its content. It is highly impressive in many ways, yet simply does not wear very well.

     Nor does Schmidt’s Symphony No. 3 – despite, again, a very fine performance. This is one of the works that garnered Schmidt international praise in his own time: written in 1927-28, it won first prize from New York’s Columbia Graphophone Company as the best new symphony in the spirit of Schubert’s “Unfinished” (as part of the centenary commemoration of Schubert’s death). Yet there is nothing very Schubertian about the music – there is far less of Schubert here than in, say, Bruckner’s earlier symphonies. The first movement does offer some appealing if rather slow-moving lyricism, and the second movement is particularly well constructed (it is essentially a set of variations – that form that Schmidt handled so well). The work has all the right elements for a symphony, including a well-made scherzo and trio and a finale whose Lento opening provides the theme of its Allegro vivace section. But it is an easier work to admire than to enjoy – it feels careful rather than involving. And despite the Schubert-related award it received, this symphony is utterly lacking in the tunefulness that was Schubert’s hallmark. Schmidt was certainly a fine, solid composer who knew his craft well and did an expert job of assembling well-wrought, complex works. But there is little that is gripping, much less charming, in the music heard on these CDs. The impression they leave is that although the neglect of Schmidt’s high-quality music may be unfair, it is also understandable.

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