Franz SCHMIDT (1874-1939)
Quintet in A major for Piano left-hand, Clarinet & String Trio (1927/1938) [63:42]
Linos Ensemble (Konstanze Eickhorst (piano), Rainer Müller van Recum (clarinet), Winfried Rademacher (violin), Matthias Buchholz (viola), Mario Blaumer (cello))
rec. 15-17 June 2013, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Köln
CPO 555 026-2 [63:42]

Few such releases as this can claim to have quite as comprehensive a booklet text on the life of its composer, but Eckhardt van den Hoogen has put life and soul into Franz Schmidt’s rather misfortune-strewn history. Chamber works of over an hour long are rare enough, and an online search would seem to indicate that recordings of this particular piece are also few and far between. The booklet notes point out that the one detriment to this piece is “our own lack of patience,” but having had this music running both as a casual ‘try-out’ sort of background noise and then focussing in later on its details and character, I have to find myself very much on Schmidt’s side.

This is music in a Romantic idiom, but in that regard remains rather easy-going and approachable throughout. The genesis of this work is outlined in the booklet, with themes by Josef Labor taken as something of a starting point, emerging as a quite charming set of variations for the Finale. Elements from Mozart’s Piano Quintet K 331 are also mentioned as an influence. Joseph Marx described Schmidt as “a late classicist,” and it is this translucency of texture and lightness of touch that remains in the memory, especially when recalling movements such as the central Scherzo with its playful themes and buoyantly running sixteenth notes. The second movement, Intermezzo is for piano alone, and Paul Wittgenstein’s reservations about this as a formal feature resulted in Schmidt writing an alternative Adagio which becomes the fourth movement in this complete performance: uber-complete indeed, with its doubled exposition taking this movement alone up to 15 minutes in duration.

This Adagio has a lamenting, Hungarian flavour, with a gorgeous clarinet melody over sighing strings. While you probably won’t register the left-hand-only aspect of the piano part on casual listening, it is certainly clear in this movement that the aforementioned transparency of texture is thanks at least in part to this aspect of its composition. The piano part is sometimes very sparing, with just a few notes punctuating developing harmonies in the strings, at other times rising and falling through the range of the piano with more of a decorative function. The piano part is by no means an unequal one in this work, but it by no means overburdens the textures and sonorities of the whole with added thickness.

The Finale. Variations on a Theme by Josef Labor opens with disarming charm. The various sections at times develop that Hungarian character; playfully exploring musical possibilities rather than heading towards a virtuoso test for the musicians.

When Wittgenstein approached Schmidt with his reservations about this piece in 1938, “he was initially a bit hurt and said; ‘I believed that I was bringing you joy with it.’” Wittgenstein admitted his fears were unfounded, and I hope I can encourage collectors of good music by also confirming that this Quintet in A major does indeed being great joy. It doesn’t have big, memorable tunes that you will find yourself whistling for days thereafter, but it does shine like a bright light in a genre that is more often associated with dark and Brahmsian intensity. Once you’ve made its acquaintance I can imagine it becoming something of a personal and private pleasure; an almost secret delight in a work which, alas, seems destined to remain a concert hall rarity. With a superlative performance and excellent recording set in a perfect acoustic, this is an unexpected and rather delicious discovery which will keep its freshness and beckon with vibrant cheer each time your eyes sweep across those well-stocked CD shelves.

Dominy Clements

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