FRANZ SCHMIDT: Concertante Variations on a Theme of Beethoven for Piano, Left Hand and Orchestra; Piano Concerto in E-flat Major for Piano, Left Hand and Orchestra – Markus Becker, piano/ NDR Radiophilharmonie/Eiji Oue
CPO 777 338-2, 73:27 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Pianist, cellist, composer, and pedagogue, Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) studied with Anton Bruckner and Theodor Leschetizky, worked with Gustav Mahler, and found relations cordial with Arnold Schoenberg. Mainly remembered for two compositions–his Intermezzo from the opera Notre Dame and his apocalyptic oratorio The Book of Seven Seals–Schmidt cultivated an eclectic style that lies between the conservative Austro-Hungarian tradition he imbibed from Bruckner, Brahms, Richard Strauss, and Reger, and the modernist–although predominantly tonal–tendencies to be gleaned from Debussy, Ravel, Hindemith, and Berg. The two concertante pieces presented here (rec. July-November 2006) owe their origins to pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961) who had lost his right arm in WW I but who commissioned a number of important works to suit his unique talent and sound.
The Concertante Variations date from 1923 and take as their subject the scherzo from Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 “Spring.” The ensuing variants–with their concomitant descending scale–embrace a number of styles, although the general arch of the work resembles the Symphonic Variations by Cesar Franck of slow introduction, two-fold thematic exposition, slow and scherzando episodes, and finale. Beethoven’s jaunty tune soon assumes rather colorful shapes, as in the Bolero variant, No. 4. A chorale emerges from No. 9 that leads to the keyboard’s version in figures that might have been penned by Busoni. No. 10 flickers and dances in brisk, polyphonic colors that Rachmaninov wanted for Paganini Rhapsody. The last section–Fugato–becomes quite intricate over the basic chorale theme but the textures remain lithe and disarmingly transparent, given the knotty metrics that ensue. The last page slows down the Beethoven tune to a light dirge that fades into the aether.
The mammoth Piano Concerto in E-flat Major was composed around 1935; and despite its conception for left hand, the opening tympani roll announces its kinship with Reger’s 1910 Concerto in F Minor, Op. 114. The short chips of melodic material in sequence almost re-writes aspects of the Brahms E Minor Symphony. The piano entry combines the Ravel D Major Concerto with elements from the Bartok First Concerto, cross-fertilized by allusions to Schumann, Reger, Bach, and Saint-Saens, classicists all. The scale of the first movement, with its expansive solo cadenza–reminding us of the dictum that the left hand should sound like two hands–reminds us at several points of the Brahms D Minor Concerto, though more sun manages to creep into the score. The annunciation of E-flat from tympani, horns, and strings sets the piece within the sonata-allegro tradition, the early tunes recapitulated in colorful, even pentatonic combinations.
The Andante proceeds almost diatonically, with a tympani roll and staccati from the keyboard with soft strings, quasi-Ravel in texture. Angular and chromatic, the movement proceeds with individual colors from clarinet and oboe and piano, a kind of elaborate trio-sonata without any melodic extension, rather melodic kernels and layered sequences. The dark hues might suggest Faure, especially in the ongoing triplets in the keyboard. The generally bucolic mood culminates in cuckoo riffs from the oboe, the piano and French horn merging in a Brahmsian sunset most placidly serene. The 6/8 Vivace tries hard to engage us with its rondo agitations and brash sonorities. The watery contours of the keyboard writing and the busy strings create a mood similar to a late Faure fantasy, the perpetual glitter likely an allusion to Ravel. Typically, the dance tune becomes contrapuntal, only to break off for the formidable cadenza that basks in arpeggios and declamatory chords, leaving only a few precious moments for the orchestra–a la the Ravel Concerto in D–to apply a few brassy dance steps to the abbreviated coda.