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.

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 people would 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 pressed by Prokofiev, he replied that he didn't yet understand the concerto, but would perform it when light broke. Apparently, he remained in the dark. However, 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 the Left Hand, he butchered through his "emendations." Fortunately, he performed it, so others less willful could play what the composer actually 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 in 2002). Bloody-minded.

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 writing 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 Paganini). 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 Gershwin.

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 after 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 material. 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 pun. 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 from 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 this?

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 -- darned attractive.

S.G.S. (May 2011)