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Schmitt PCs CDA68389
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Aloys Schmitt (1788-1866)
Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor Op.14 (pub.1823)
Piano Concerto No.2 in D minor Op.34
Rondeau Brilliant Op.101 (1839)
Ulster Orchestra/Howard Shelley (piano)
rec. 2021, Waterfront Hall, Belfast, UK
The Romantic Piano Concerto vol. 84
HYPERION CDA68389 [76]

Howard Shelley has long been a stalwart champion of unsung composers and has made an extraordinary contribution to Hyperion's Romantic Piano Concerto series, featuring on over a quarter of the volumes, 26 to be precise, as well as all eight of the Classical Piano Concerto volumes. On this volume he introduces us to Bavarian born Aloys Schmitt, composer, pianist and pedagogue whose method was respected by Liszt and whose exercises only began to go out of fashion in the middle of the last century. His father was his first teacher to be followed by Johann André, G J Vollweiler and Philipp Carl Hoffmann. He went on to compose at least two more Piano Concertos in addition to those heard here as well as operas, various choral and chamber works and many piano pieces. As a teacher his most famous pupil was Ferdinand Hiller whose own concertos appear on volumes 45 (CDA67655) and 78 (CDA68240) of the series, played by Shelley. The booklet quotes Chopin who heard him play in 1831 and wrote to Józef Elsner, his one-time tutor saying He is over forty and composes eighty-year old music!. Listening to the works here Chopin was a little unfair though with the quality of music that the not-yet 21 year old Chopin had already amassed it is understandable. Schmitt cannot be so easily dismissed, however; these works display considerable skill and if there is perhaps a nod to Mozart and Beethoven the orchestration and style are very much of their age.

Jeremy Nicholas points out in his excellent notes that the opening of the first Concerto echoes Beethoven's C minor Concerto and the similarities are there but beyond that Schmitt is his own man. After a lengthy section exploring the dramatic opening motifs there is a good deal of fancy fingerwork and new themes in the major key, the first introduced by the oboe and the second, much more chordal, by the piano. These themes interspersed with passagework are how the movement proceeds; a decorated version of the lyrical second theme leads to development of the opening music and the second theme, now in the minor key, leading to a piano cadenza. It is left to the orchestra to bring the movement to a close. A string quartet introduces the first theme of the second movement adagio con moto quasi andante, a stately theme whose simple, hymn-like quality is taken up by the soloist. I particularly like the sudden change to the minor key at 2:27 with the horn and other winds lending their voices. A change of rhythmic impetus signals a second theme which though in a similar vein to the first is accompanied by a pulsing, triplet accompaniment. The quartet's return seems to signal the end of the movement but it is the pianist's rising arpeggios that lead us straight into the finale. A cheeky repeated note theme opens this rondo allegro, a theme that would suit the comic character in a Donizetti opera and it is around this theme that much of the interest of the finale revolves – it is a rondo after all. Towards the end of the movement the darker mood of the opening movement returns and in a flurry of passagework the work ends. I feel that for all the virtuosity of the piece Schmitt is more concerned with the dramatic and thematic side of things and he is happy to let the orchestra lead the argument for much of the time; it makes for an attractive first foray into the genre for Schmitt.

The second Concerto, like the first is undated; it appears the first was published by 1823 but that doesn't help much as so were works up to and including his third piano concerto op.54. The second's lilting but melancholy opening theme is interrupted by a sudden dramatic outburst from the whole orchestra and for me there are hints of Beethoven and Mendelssohn in this opening tutti, the former particularly in the dramatic interjections. The soloist enters in declamatory mood, stern chords and answering arpeggios and there is something quite distinctive about the soloist's writing here. A burst of passagework leads to the short second theme played once by the soloist and repeated by the strings and wind before the soloist is off again with more nimble passagework. The soloist's entry after a central tutti is quite playful. The lilt of the opening theme is the subject of much of the development section and it is this rather than the grand orchestral interjections that are revealed as the real drive of the movement. The opening of the mini cadenza is quite unusual; a single chord from the soloist followed by a passage of fast repeated notes is reminiscent of something Alkan might have written but normality returns and the movement comes to a close after a severe and dramatic iteration of the opening theme, some keyboard encompassing writing for the soloist and a brief reappearance of the Alkan-like figuration. Wind accompanied by strings open the second movement adagio; I feel there is something of a paucity of thematic material here and the soloist's entry is mostly chordal around a rather generic melodic outline. It all sounds very lovely and the scoring and writing for the piano are effective – I was just waiting for something more memorable. The theme of the final allegro, one that Weber would have been happy to use in a wind concerto, is as jaunty as one could wish but after it is played Schmitt is once again content to let the soloist relax while letting the orchestra have its moment to shine. The second theme is a simple, happy little tune but it is not long before the soloist is once again exploring the keyboard from end to end. Toward the end the tempo pushes on a little to an exciting finish.

The Rondo brilliant that rounds off this disc is a graceful, elegant work, and at 12:14 is shorter than either of the concertos' first movements. Written in 1839 it is in the same mould as Hummel's shorter concertante works or concerto finales and it seems that, for all the craft involved Schmitt has not moved on stylistically from his earlier works. The booklet quotes a review by Schumann that praised it while echoing Chopin's words though somewhat less harshly, ageing the music just a couple of decades; we have got quite beyond that half style of music in which composer and the virtuoso allow each other to shine by turns. We need not worry about the works being twenty years out of date after some 200 years of course and just enjoy it for its genuine, joyful melodic and pianistic pleasure.

Pianist and orchestra present these works in excellent performances, darkly dramatic and glitteringly energetic by turns and it is to be hoped that a later volume will feature Schmitt's other concertos – imslp lists concertos opp.54, 60 and 76 as well as a concertino brilliante op.75 subtitled le Retour ŕ Francfort sur Mein. Another valuable release in this remarkable series that clearly still has legs.

Rob Challinor

Previous review: Jonathan Welsh (August 2022)

Published: October 20, 2022

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