SCHMIDT: Concertante Variations on a Theme of Beethoven for
Piano (lh) & Orchestra
(1923). Piano Concerto in E-flat (lh) (1934).
Markus Becker (piano); NDR Radiophilharmonie/Eiji Oue.
CPO 777 338-2 TT: 73:27.
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Wit, sprightly and labored. Paul Wittgenstein, older brother of the philosopher
Ludwig, lost his right arm during World War I. He had been a pupil of
Leschetizky and had begun a promising career as a concert pianist. Most
have found another line of work. Wittgenstein was stubborn (even bloody-minded)
enough to continue as a virtuoso. He arranged several compositions for
left hand. From a industrialist family of billionaires, he commissioned
leading composers of the day including Josef Labor, Erich Korngold, Richard
Strauss, Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten, and Paul
Hindemith. He didn't necessarily perform what he had commissioned. When
Prokofiev, he replied that he didn't yet understand the concerto, but
would perform it when light broke. Apparently, he remained in the dark.
since he held the right of first performance, nobody heard the piece
until he died in 1961. His most famous commission, Ravel's Concerto for
Hand, he butchered through his "emendations." Fortunately,
he performed it, so others less willful could play what the composer
wrote. He was so put off by Hindemith's concerto that he hid it away,
keeping it from everyone (after his widow died, somebody found the score
Wittgenstein talked a good game and commissioned great Modern composers,
but he lacked fundamental sympathy and understanding of their music. The
work of Korngold, Strauss, and Franz Schmidt vibrated more to his wavelength,
and he probably felt artistically closest to Schmidt, perhaps the Viennese
composer most honored by the city itself in his day. If you consider that
Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg, and Toch are Schmidt's contemporaries, you
immediately get a feel for the Viennese public's innate conservatism. The
conservatism did not necessarily extend to Schmidt, who -- as a performer,
at any rate -- kept in touch with the Viennese avant-garde. Schoenberg
especially admired his conducting of Pierrot lunaire. As a composer, however,
Schmidt was mainly a transitional figure, like Mahler, an artist of the
Nineteenth Century trying to come into the Twentieth. Mahler, the greater
composer, took Romanticism as far as it could go. Schmidt in his last phase
as a composer actually broke through to Modernism in his powerful oratorio,
Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln. By then, he was close to death.
I admit up front that Schmidt's idiom -- post-Wagnerian chromaticism --
doesn't do much for me all by itself, unlike musical Impressionism, for
instance. At its mediocre, it doesn't seem to go anywhere, reminding me
of the high-school kid improvising his epics at the piano. I say this,
despite the visual examination of the scores and knowing full well that
the same applies to any idiom. I find Schmidt himself uneven, although
always a marvelous craftsman. The music has a fine polish, but it may not
say anything compelling. The two works here show Schmidt at his best and
at his merely so-so.
The piano concerto falls into the latter category. In three long movements,
it shows sophisticated and subtle motific manipulation in the service
of lame rhetoric. Schmidt seems to have aimed for a "symphonic" concerto, à la the
Brahms second. Unlike the Brahms, it seems to do a lot of heavy lifting
to very little effect. Except for moments in the vivace finale, I can't
recall a single passage, gesture, or theme. Even in that finale, however,
one must wait for the wind to fill the sails again, mostly in a nearly
seven-minute cadenza. During my listenings, I found I had to write down
the concerto's main ideas, since they simply wouldn't stick. Schmidt
revs a powerful engine and goes nowhere. The concerto natters. The piano
itself gets buried under layers of contrapuntal and orchestral filigree.
It amazes me that not only did Wittgenstein prefer this concerto to Ravel's,
he actually pushed it as the model "his" composers should imitate.
On the other hand, the Concertante Variations on a Theme of Beethoven delights,
in much the same way as the Rachmaninoff Paganini Rhapsody does.
The Schmidt, however, predates the Rachmaninoff (just as Beethoven predates
The theme comes from the scherzo movement of Beethoven's "Spring" violin
sonata, op. 24. It's a simple, memorable theme, which Beethoven syncopates
to daffy effect. It's cute as kittens. At times, the metrical pulse vanishes
behind the off-beat. The lack of focus of Schmidt's concerto hasn't yet
settled into the variations. Instead of po'-faced, laborious earnestness,
we are greeted by mordant humor -- less grotesque and less impetuous than
Rachmaninoff's, more "free-and easy, Viennese-y," to cite Ira
Schmidt builds an unusual structure. He begins with an extended fantasia,
based on the theme but never quoting it outright. We then arrive at the
section marked "Thema," which states the theme and then throws
in a couple of simple variations. We finally arrive at the variation
section proper -- 8 variations, followed by a fugato coda, probably modeled
the endings of Max Reger's orchestral variations, although less monumental.
Each variation has a distinct, piquant character. Furthermore, the piano
writing -- remember, for left hand alone -- just plain astonishes. Schmidt
emphasizes not brutal power, but flexibility and beauty of phrase.
Early on, Schmidt loses Beethoven's syncopations, and the variations
become essays on descending and ascending scalar runs -- fairly unpromising
Nevertheless, Schmidt's considerable ingenuity never allows a listener
to become bored. The two tangiest variations are the "bolero" second,
which sounds more Hungarian or Polish than Spanish, and the penultimate,
which weaves in the chorale tune "Aus tiefer Not." It turns
out that the chorale is kin to the Beethoven almost by means of musical
The chorale also turns up in the fugato, which eventually winds down,
like a spring-driven clock, to its last tick on Beethoven's theme.
While I'm at it, I'd like to point out the uselessness of Eckhardt von
den Hoogen's liner notes -- typical flummery for which Europeans apparently
have a high tolerance and tend to mistake for thinking. I pity the translator,
because the original German is just as awful. Eckhardt goes on and on
for pages and in small type and manages to say very little. One sentence
an essay chock-full of such horrors should suffice:
"The iridescent chain of variative associations and associative variations
lies before us: "For, to say it once and for all, the human being
plays only when he is a human being in the full sense of the word, and
he is entirely a human being only when he plays."
The quote from Schiller doesn't help, and I would even question its relevance.
Does anybody at CPO really believe it was worth pulping trees to print
Eiji Oue and his Hanoverians do a nice job accompanying in the variations.
However, I can't tell whether they sink the concerto or the concerto
sinks them. Markus Becker is simply amazing. At certain points I thought, "No
way can he play that with one hand," but, obviously, somebody had
to be able to bring these things off. Again, I could live without the
concerto (which, incidentally, reminds me of Reger's), but not the variations
S.G.S. (May 2011)