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Franz SCHMIDT (1874-1939)
Variations on a Hussar’s Song (1930/31) [26:15]
Fantasia for piano and orchestra in B flat major (1899) [19:40]
Chaconne for orchestra in D minor (1931) [27:31]
Jasminka Stančul (piano)
Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Alexander Rumpf
rec. Ludwigshafen Philharmonie, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany: 29 March - 1 April, 2016
CAPRICCIO C5274 [73:26]

The Austro-Hungarian Franz Schmidt tends to be thought of these days, with such composers as Pfitzner and Reger, as one of the worthy also-rans of the end of the Romantic era of music – very much in the shadow of Richard Strauss. In fact, his musical pedigree was, if anything, more impeccable than that of Strauss. After studying the piano with Theodore Leschetitzky, he attended the Vienna Conservatoire where he studied composition with Robert Fuchs, harmony and counterpoint with no less than Anton Bruckner and ’cello with Ferdinand Hellmesberger.

Schmidt started to compose his first symphony, much influenced by Bruckner and Strauss, around the time of his graduation in 1896 and it was published in 1899. As a composer he was to be slow to develop but one of his most important and monumental works - the successful opera Notre Dame, also appeared as early as 1904-6. In addition, however, he built a considerable reputation as a pianist. (An apocryphal story has Leopold Godowsky, upon being asked whom he thought was the greatest living pianist, replying: “The other one is Franz Schmidt”.) It is, therefore, somewhat surprising that he was to join the VPO as a ’cellist and remain there until 1911, when he moved to the Vienna Opera Orchestra – often performing under Mahler. In 1914, as war threatened, he decided to devote himself wholly to teaching and composing and was awarded a piano professorship at the Vienna Academy of Music where he, in turn, had many pupils who were subsequently to become very prominent musicians.

Schmidt was to produce a sizeable body of compositions – many of them monumental. In spite of his capabilities as a pianist he produced only a small body of work for solo piano and only three works for piano and orchestra – two of them, the Concertante Variations on a theme of Beethoven (1923) and the Piano Concerto in E flat (1934), for the one-armed pianist, Paul Wittgenstein. An early work, dating from 1899, the Fantasiestück (or Fantasia) for piano and orchestra was thought lost until it was rediscovered fairly recently and given its premiere in November 2013, more than a century after its composition. This is, perhaps, the most interesting of the offerings on the present disc which – taken together - provide an interesting link with two of Capriccio’s other recent releases of Schmidt’s music: a complete recording of Notre Dame and a selection of organ compositions.

In fact, the Fantasia anticipates some of the material that Schmidt subsequently re-used in the opera. Running to nearly 20 minutes it is cast in three main sections: a relatively short initial theme and development; a slow section that alternates appearances of a big, soaring tune for orchestra alone with cadenza-like passages for solo piano musing on the tune (not unlike the episodes in Tchaikovsky’s Concert Fantasia) until the forces eventually combine; and, finally, a short march-like interlude that leads to a concerto finale in triple time. Anybody who likes romantic piano concertos should enjoy this and, to my ear, this is a more successful work than Schmidt’s other concertante pieces or, for that matter, the piano concerto of Schmidt’s teacher, Fuchs. It is given a splendid performance and recording here that I greatly enjoyed.

Apart from his four symphonies Schmidt wrote relatively little of substance for orchestra alone and two of the three principal works also appear on the present disc. The Variations on a Hussar’s Song have been recorded several times (and have often been often reviewed by MWI). This work is somewhat unusual in that the cheerful and somewhat naive theme only appears after a mysterious and portentous orchestral prelude - to which, at first hearing, it appears unrelated. In fact, this is rather like the situation in Dohnanyi’s Variations on a Nursery Theme (for piano and orchestra) and the two works are sometimes coupled for this reason. After the prelude the remainder of the work is principally divided into four sections (separately tracked here): the theme and variations 1-5 (followed by a brief Lento passage); variations 6-10; variations 11 and 12; and, finally, variations 13-15 and a brief coda. According to the booklet note this gives a structure akin to a symphony but I don’t buy this. The work is principally an exercise in variation form, less witty than the Dohnanyi work and less notable than counterparts by – say - Dvorak and Elgar, but with some lovely moments. The gorgeous, lush string writing of variations 11 and 12, for example, rivals anything Strauss ever produced. Here the work is given an atmospheric and exciting performance with a very satisfactory and detailed recording that affords a wide dynamic range with no audible distortion.

What might be thought to be the filler, the orchestral arrangement of the organ Chaconne in C sharp minor, is actually the longest piece on the disc. Not unlike Stokowski’s arrangement of Bach the organ origins of the work are very evident in the pedal notes underpinning the development and in the woodwind writing (e.g. at around 19:30) but I can’t help thinking that this arrangement is a preferable way to hear the work. One doesn’t miss the sound of the organ until the big ending – when the absence of a huge, deep bass organ note is to be regretted! As the booklet note says, the enormous colossus the composer manages to build on a 5-bar bass theme is impressive. That said, some sections of the work slightly outstay their welcome – although there is usually enough contrast to provide redemption (e.g. the section at about 13:00, where the woodwind wanders around in a theme recalling a similar moment from Smetana’s Vltava and a section where a euphonious brass theme is set against strings). The last third of the work builds up to a huge climax (at 24:00), falls away and then returns, all guns blazing, to the aforesaid big ending. It all gets a bit bombastic but, once again, it is all splendidly performed and recorded.

Since the 1970s Schmidt’s music has enjoyed a modest revival which looks set to continue as it is rediscovered and re-evaluated. I very much expect that this excellent disc will contribute to that revival.

Bob Stevenson



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