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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
String Quintet in F major (original 1878 version) [43.04]
Franz SCHMIDT (1874-1939)
Piano Quintet in G major (1926, arr. Wührer) [33.43]
Vienna Philharmonia Quintet: Wolfgang Poduschka, Alfred Staar, violin I, II; Josef Staar, Helmut Weis (Bruckner only), violas; Wolfgang Herzer, cello; Eduard Mrazek, piano (Schmidt only)
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria, April 1974. ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 476 2455 [76.49]
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inexplicably, both these Quintets by Bruckner and Schmidt are rarely performed and recorded. One demands to know why these magnificent works are not part of the standard repertoire. Here the scores are given performances of the strongest advocacy by the Vienna Philharmonia Quintet. The recordings were made for Decca over thirty years ago and they remain among the finest examples of late-Romantic chamber music on record.
As early as 1861, Bruckner was asked by violinist Joseph Hellmesberger to write a new work for his string ensemble. Seventeen years were to pass before Bruckner was able to provide them with the F major String Quintet. There was an earlier String Quintet in C minor, written for his composition teacher Otto Kitzler, but Bruckner discounted this as a mere student work.
In 1878 Bruckner had just completed revisions to his third and fourth symphonies and was about to embark on writing his sixth. Given this background it is only to be expected that the four movement String Quintet should be symphonic in scope. Bruckner makes extraordinary demands on the technique, commitment and grasp of style of the players. The work can be justly acclaimed as one of the masterpieces of the genre. Joseph Hellmesberger said he found the scherzo too difficult and requested an easier movement. Bruckner duly composed the intermezzo in D minor, which shares the same trio as the scherzo of the String Quintet. The original scherzo is played by the Vienna Philharmonia Quintet on this recording.
The opening movement has a real ‘chamber music’ feel and we can detect shades of Mendelssohn but with denser textures. The approach of the Vienna Philharmonia Quintet has a refreshing naturalness with a chosen tempo that sounds comfortably right. There is a wealth of sparkling ideas in the scherzo which has been described as grotesque and endearing. The performance from the Vienna players, in this unusual and sinister movement, is selfless and dedicated. Although I would have preferred a touch more vitality in their playing; which feels a little measured. The sublime passion of the adagio is the emotional centre of the whole score. The movement, which could be mistaken for a transcription of a slow movement from a symphony, ends in a mood of great peace and serenity. The Vienna players offer a deeply searching reading, free from expressive exaggeration. The structure of the concluding movement, that includes a profusion of short motifs, takes the music ahead of its time. This finale has been described as containing orchestral texture and over-adventurous counterpoint. Bruckner could be said to have written an immense symphonic movement for solo strings. The Vienna players in the finale display well judged tempos with an abundance of light and shade.
From my collection, I would not wish to be without the 1993 account of the F major String Quintet, which also includes a version of the intermezzo in D minor, from the Raphael Ensemble on Hyperion CDA66704; c/w Strauss’s Prelude to ‘Capriccio’ for String Sextet.
The lesser known late-Romantic composer Franz Schmidt was an inheritor of the Bruckner tradition. Born in what is now Bratislava he moved to Vienna with his family in 1888. He studied at the Conservatory in Vienna and received composition instruction with Robert Fuchs, cello tuition with Ferdinand Hellmesberger and studied theory with Bruckner, graduating “with excellence” in 1896. Schmidt beat thirteen other applicants in obtaining a post as cellist with the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra, with whom he played, often under Mahler, until 1914. As a composer Schmidt was slow to develop, but his reputation, at least in Austria, saw a steady growth from the late 1890s until his death in 1939. Schmidt worked mainly in large forms, including the composition of four symphonies, several oratorios and two operas. His output includes a quantity of important organ music and several chamber scores. Schmidt continued to develop the Viennese classic-romantic traditions that he had inherited from Schubert, Brahms and his own master, Bruckner.
Schmidt’s compositions are considered relatively complex and are also notoriously difficult to perform, requiring considerable technical accomplishment. The score to the four movement G major Piano Quintet falls into that category and contains an unmistakable Viennese flavour. In 1926 Schmidt composed the score for his friend Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist who had lost an arm during the Great War. Friedrich Wührer took Wittgenstein’s single piano part and made a two-hand arrangement, which is the version that we hear on this recording.
A winning spontaneity regularly marks the playing of the VPQ in the terse and agitated opening movement of the Piano Quintet. Perhaps the first movement is overlong for its material and the main themes could have been more memorable. The second movement is an adagio in the style of a ländler and is one of the loveliest pieces Schmidt wrote. The performance of the Vienna ensemble is refined and well judged with pianist Eduard Mrazek displaying nobility and command. The third movement has a slow introduction, after which comes a vigorous, bubbling dance. It is quite remarkable how much style and authority the Vienna players provide in the third movement with its slow introduction, after which comes a vigorous, bubbling dance. The Piano Quintet closes with a tremendous rondo, finale which is thematically related to the adagio. The Vienna ensemble secure a confident grip on this eventful music. There is a special integrity in their reading which is highly compelling. The piano part dominates throughout, yet the responsive playing of Eduard Mrazek never threatens to swamp the quartet of strings.
Recorded at the Sofiensaal, Vienna in 1974, the sound engineer Gordon Parry has provided a clear, warm and well balanced sound for both scores. The well written but uncredited annotation is concise, interesting and informative.
Hidden gems of the late-Romantic chamber repertoire, marvellously performed and recorded. A thoroughly enjoyable release.
Michael Cookson

see also review by Paul Shoemaker




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