“FRANZ MITTLER: Viennese Wunderkind” = MITTLER: Sonata in G Major for Cello and Piano; Sonata in D Major for Violin and Piano – Diana Mittler, piano / André Emelianoff, cello / Alexander Meshibovsky, violin – Con Brio Recordings CBR21042, 47:33 [Distr. by Albany] ***:
Austrian-born composer, pianist, and humorist Franz Mittler (1893-1970) is one of those conservative Viennese composers who resisted the avant-garde, choosing to follow the banner of Johannes Brahms instead. Like his contemporaries Korngold and Hans Gál, he wrote in all forms though he is best remembered, if at all, for his songs. Among the many hats that Mittler wore in his life was that of a celebrated accompanist in lieder recitals during the 20s and 30s.
Like other composers of the same bent who are lumped under the rubric “post-Brahmsian,” Mittler is being reevaluated and rediscovered. Unfortunately, some of his major compositions were lost during the Anschluss, when, like many Jewish artists, he emigrated, in his case to America. Once there, he played with and arranged for the First Piano Quartet, a popular musical group of the time, and gained additional fame for his humorous writings and recordings. He returned to Austria in the 60s to act as vocal coach at the Mozarteum of Salzburg.
Franz Mittler lived an intriguingly varied life then, and one that stimulates interest plus maybe a touch of skepticism, especially when the overworked term Wunderkind is applied to him. But given the age at which Mittler acquired recognition and a golden name, the term is as aptly applied to him as it is to Korngold. The first notices for his String Quartet written in 1909 were glowing, as they were when the Cello Sonata appeared the next year. This led to publication of other early works by publishers the likes of Universal and Simrock, Brahms’s publishing house.
Apparently, Mittler’s Violin Sonata, also from 1909, remained unpublished. It was discovered by his daughter, Diana Mittler-Battipaglia, the pianist on this Con Brio recording, in the Austrian National Library along with around four hundred other compositions that bear Mittler’s name, some of which are now available from Edition Silverhurst. So perhaps we’ll hear more of Franz Mittler as we’ve started to hear more of other post-Brahmsians such as Hans Gál, Julius Röntgen, and Adolf Busch, whose Brahmsian influences came by way of his teacher, Max Reger.
How good are these early compositions of Franz Mittler, and what do they sound like? Well, coming from a lad of sixteen or seventeen, they’re remarkably accomplished, showing not just a mastery of sonata form but a sophisticated appreciation of the instruments involved and how to work with them as an ensemble. (Besides piano, Mittler also studied violin, guitar, and voice, so his understanding of the instruments he wrote for was often first-hand.) Although, like Gál, Mittler is said to have increasingly peppered his Brahmsian language with chromatic accents, there’s no evidence of that in the early works. The harmonic language doesn’t present any advances at all on Brahms and is in fact less adventuresome than Brahms can sometimes be—for example, in his late piano works.
Too, when I think of Brahms, I think of a stately, sober-sided Romanticism—not unsmiling, exactly, but that’s not the chief emotion I come away with. The studious counterpoint of Brahms’s First Cello Sonata, the autumnal haze and glow of the Second, the passionate longing of the Second Violin Sonata or dark-hued drama of the Third—none of that really applies to the Mittler works on offer. This is a young man’s music. It reminds me more of the early chamber works of Richard Strauss—bright, confident, even a little bumptious, maybe. The melodies are big and ripe as is their treatment. This is unabashedly Romantic music that, like early Korngold, traces a line just this side of schmalz. Or should I say Schlag? It’s attractive, it demonstrates a real gift, but it isn’t something I want to hear with any frequency.
These performances are literally a labor of love, at least on the part of pianist Diana Mittler, who plays with a full rich tone and ample technical polish. I’m happier with the playing of violinist Meshibovsky than with that of cellist André Emelianoff, whose intonation is not always on target and whose lower register is somewhat wooly. Certainly, though, he has the measure of this music emotionally and stylistically.
Con Brio’s recording is big and close-up, which catches some extraneous noises from the cellist especially, but it also has fine presence, good stereo spread and imaging. Overall, it’s a very good job. So this isn’t an essential recording, perhaps, but it’s worth exploring if you enjoy the music of turn-of-the-century Vienna.
— Lee Passarella
Another historic recording from Pristine