Aloys Schmitt (1788-1866)
Piano Concerto No 1 in C minor, Op 14
Piano Concerto No 2 in D minor,
Rondeau brillant, Op 101
Ulster Orchestra/Howard Shelley (piano)
rec. 2021, Waterfront Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland
The Romantic Piano Concerto ~ 84
HYPERION CDA68389 
I have a particular interest in neglected composers but even so I had never
heard of Aloys Schmitt. The ever-helpful Jeremy Nicholas supplies a detailed
and informative essay. At one time, the notes say, Schmitt was well thought
of by his peers, including some of the most famous composers of the day. He
slowly fell out of fashion and disappeared from view, likely due to changes
in taste and to his determination to do his own thing. (He apparently often
missed his pupils’ lessons because he loved to travel.) All three works here get their world premiere recordings.
The First Concerto begins with a flourish, sort of like a Mozartian introduction but written long after Mozart’s time. The opening tutti are rather long – similar to Chopin’s E minor concerto – and contain rather fun and memorable tunes leading nicely from one another. The music develops up to the point where the piano enters. There is much leaping about in the solo part but, as the movement continues, there are also plenty of rather lovely more restrained moments. The insistent C minor theme, the movement’s backbone heard at several points, is certainly memorable. The cadenza is powerful and interestingly rather long, and it gives the soloist a lot to do. I can detect Chopin again and, to a lesser extent, Beethoven in the way the piano part is constructed. Once the soloist has finished showing their mettle, the orchestra continues with a satisfyingly suitable wrap-up of what we have heard before. The opening movement is longer than the other two combined but is so well put together that it does not outstay its welcome.
The following Adagio con moto quasi andante starts with a wonderfully beautiful string introduction. The whole orchestra then comes in with an almost “once upon a time” theme. The piano enters at 1:45 and develops somewhat in the manner of a Field Nocturne. There is truly exceptional horn playing in the background while the piano weaves a delicate motif. When the remainder of the orchestra joins in, a restrained and diffuse background accompaniment gives a lovely effect. After a minute or two, this clears suddenly before a new theme emerges, similar to the old one but gaining in power. This develops nicely and then we find ourselves back with just the strings. In a peaceful conclusion, the piano returns, leaving us on a knife edge for the Finale which continues without a break.
The Finale speeds along. It is constructed in the rondo form ABACA, and gives Mr. Shelley a good deal to do! First comes a rather sprightly Mozart-like theme, which initially has rather restrained string accompaniment before the piano takes over with some solo fireworks. Schmitt does favour nice flowing melodies (á la Field), and another of these crops up as the contrasted B section in this movement. The plan of the movement makes it obvious that the opening tune will return with rather complex-sounding leaps and interesting deviations from the theme. This happy-sounding jolly stuff is guaranteed to make you smile. After another more relaxed interlude and then some more pyrotechnics, the opening music returns, varied again to provide a rather exciting Beethovenian conclusion to this splendid work.
In terms of form, for its time (approximately 1830s), the First Concerto is rather old-fashioned but it is very well put together. It flows melodiously from one clever theme to the next, and all concerned play impeccably. As an aside, I think Schmitt must have had a thing for woodwinds, and especially the oboe. He certainly favours the instrument at various points throughout the concerto.
The Second Concerto continues in a vein similar to the First, opening with an Allegro movement again longer than the other two. This time, the music starts in the middle of the strings and develops nicely. It meanders through various keys before the soloist enters with a flourish and a strange, bouncy tune that makes use of quite a lot of the keyboard. There is again a slightly Mozartian feel to this opening, and the theme becomes increasingly complex until the orchestra joins in with some judicious accompaniment. A feeling of unease in the opening section continues for much of the movement, perhaps it is because of the minor key. This dissipates at 5:16 when a jollier and rather affecting tune comes to the fore. This real earworm will stay with you. From here, the music continues generally in a sunnier vein with alternating sections for orchestra and piano, often with a waltz-like characteristic. I first found the movement rather long but repeated listening reveals much variety, clever effects and, of course, a lot of work for the soloist and the orchestra to keep you entertained. The cadenza towards the end is a rather splendid piece of writing, with stacks of repeated notes and trills, plus some well thought-out quieter passages. The ending wraps up the movement with a suitably virtuosic conclusion and a recap of what has occurred before.
The middle movement again puts me in mind of a Field nocturne, orchestrated. There is heavy reliance on the oboe and woodwinds from the outset. The glorious opening is superbly orchestrated; an atmosphere of calm pervades the music. The piano enters with restrained arpeggios before setting off doing its own thing with a rather beautiful theme. This contains a fair amount of material of interest, and flows along very prettily and Chopinesquely before the orchestra interjects with more sombre accompaniment. From here, the music launches off in a new direction, growing in power and becoming somehow warmer and more welcoming. Somehow, Schmitt manages to dissipate the tension. The opening theme returns once more and, after some development and extension, provides a tender conclusion.
The First Concerto left us hanging on for the finale. Here, the middle movement comes to a full stop before we are launched headlong into another crazed bouncing Rondo finale. One hears hints of Hummel rubbing shoulders with Mendelssohn, and there is solid reliance on the woodwind section. Mr. Shelley has many chances to show his technique: there is a lot of tricky passagework. The finale has a joie di vivre feeling, and we hear some spirited playing by all concerned. This movement has less of a debt to Beethoven than perhaps some of the earlier ones. It also contains interesting turns of harmony. The second subject is a good example. It contains scampering and fun diversions for the pianist and listener to enjoy. The playing is excellent all along, and the tone of the music suits Mr Shelley and the Ulster orchestra very well. The ending is a headlong rush to a virtuosic conclusion where everyone joins in the merriment. This is a cheerful, happy and joyful way to end a concerto that really should not have waited so long for a recording.
To complete this disc, we have the later Rondeau brilliant for piano and orchestra which, the notes tell me, dates from 1839. There is a suitably heroic opening before the strutting tutti make way for the piano entry with a wonderful little theme that meanders all over place, rather like Chopin in nature but with added power. In this piece, Chopin is the main influence. The main theme of sounds exactly like something the great Polish composer would have written. There are even sections in a polonaise rhythm. Mr Shelley get a great many notes to negotiate, which he does with aplomb. An obvious wit in this music shines through. The contrasted sections of favour the orchestra more so than the principal theme. There is much of interest, and when the piano does join in, the whole ensemble is nicely integrated. I like the passagework about 7 minutes in where the piano plays along in its base registers while the woodwind-led orchestra plays above it. There is a lovely effect at 10:31 where the piano and flutes echo one another. This lasts only a couple of seconds but it is an interesting effect that I cannot recall from anything else I have heard. After this, the work accelerates and gains in power. The last minute or two sound like everyone is giving it their all. The final few flourishes of the piano, more Hummel than Chopin, give a thrilling conclusion to a slightly bonkers work that is immensely enjoyable.
Schumann reviewed the Rondeau brilliant in 1839. According to the notes, he pointed out: “Had this Rondo been published earlier, it would certainly have made its way”. I agree that there is a rather faded sense of old-fashionedness to the music. By the late 1830s and 1840s, Liszt was pushing the boundaries of piano technique in the Douze grande Études S.137, the forerunner of the Études d'exécution transcendante S.139; Alkan was busy on his remarkable pathway to obscurity. But there is nothing wrong whatsoever with a little nostalgia. This is a super disc, and the music is impeccably performed throughout. I detect hints of Beethoven, Chopin, Weber, Field and Hummel in the piano and orchestral writing. Both concertos and the Rondeau are well constructed, and are a delight from start to finish. This is the sort of music that will have you humming the tunes for days, so well and logically composed that you can almost predict where will go next. Congratulations to Hyperion, Howard Shelley and the Ulster Orchestra for committing these fine works to disc. They are a delight, and will be frequently played in this household!