|About this Recording
8.223414 - SCHMIDT: Clarinet Quintet in A Major
Franz Schmidt (1874–1939)
The Austrian composer Franz Schmidt has been strangely neglected abroad, in part through his own conservatism and in part through the vagaries of history and of progressive musical taste. He was born in Pressburg (the modern Slovak capital Bratislava and former Hungarian capital Pozsony, where Liszt made his début and Bartók went to school) in 1874 and had his first music lessons there from the cathedral organist. In 1888 his family moved to Vienna, where he was able to continue his musical studies, but only by earning money as a dance-school pianist. He took lessons with that most remarkable of piano teachers Leschetizky and two years later entered the Conservatory, where his composition teachers were Bruckner and Robert Fuchs, the latter teacher of Mahler, Sibelius, Wolf, Schreker, Zemlinsky and a whole generation of Austrian composers. At the same time he studied the cello with Ferdinand Hellmesberger, a member of a remarkable Vienna dynasty of string-players. In 1896 Schmidt joined his teacher in the cello section of the Court Opera, conducted from 1897 by Gustav Mahler, who at first favoured him over the existing front-desk players. According to Schmidt Mahler soon dismissed two thirds of the players in the orchestra, and the two principal cellists would never play when Mahler conducted, leaving the front desk to Schmidt and a colleague, an arrangement that Mahler accepted. The intervention of Arnold Rosé, the concert-master and Mahler’s brother-in-law, who moved him without warning from the front desk, caused difficulties, particularly when Schmidt later refused Mahler’s order to resume, unpaid, the position of principal cellist, risking threatened dismissal. He continued as a rank-and-file player until 1911, when he eventually resigned, to become a piano professor at the Vienna Staatsakademie. There he later taught harmony and composition, serving as director from 1925 to 1927, when he was appointed director of the Vienna Musikhochschule, a position he relinquished in 1931.
Something of the enmity that arose between Schmidt and Mahler was attributed by the former to the attention critics gave the first of his four symphonies, awarded the Beethoven Prize in 1900 and first played in Vienna two years later, to the expressed approval of the redoubtable Hanslick, former champion of Brahms against the Wagnerians. Schmidt played his opera Notre Dame through to Mahler, who found it deficient in melodic invention, although he listened to the work to the end. The opera, completed in 1904 and based on Victor Hugo’s novel, won considerable success when it was first staged at the Vienna Court Opera in 1914, after Mahler’s death. As a composer he won a significant contemporary reputation not only with his symphonies but also with his 1937 apocalyptic oratorio, Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln. Schmidt’s chamber music includes two string quartets, a piano quintet and two quintets for clarinet and piano quartet.
The Second Clarinet Quintet was written in 1938, a year before Schmidt’s death. The piano part of this quintet, like that of the Clarinet Quintet in B-flat major of 1932 and of the E-flat Piano Concerto, was written for Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist who had lost his right arm in the early days of the 1914–18 war and thereafter developed a remarkable command of left-hand piano technique, commissioning works from Ravel, Britten, Richard Strauss and Prokofiev among others. The piano part in both quintets and other piano works for left hand by Schmidt was subsequently arranged for two hands by the pianist Friedrich Wührer, who also played them in this form, adopted in the present recording.
The A major Quintet opens with a movement that displays the beauty of melodic line and clarity of texture that might be associated with the Vienna of an earlier generation, an extension of the tradition of Schubert and of Bruckner into the age of Schoenberg, but akin rather to Max Reger in its subtle chromaticism. The instruments are skillfully deployed in material that suggests at times the textures of César Franck, at least in the central development, with its virtuoso piano writing. A relatively short Intermezzo follows, for solo piano, its lay-out cleverly devised for one hand, a fact that remains apparent in Wührer’s two-hand version. The other four instruments return for the lively Scherzo, a busily active melodic line set against an occasionally angular countermelody. The clarinet starts the gently evocative lilting Slovak trio section of the movement.
The B minor/B major slow movement proper allows the piano to introduce the principal material, joined by the other instruments, in music that hints at tragedy, dramatically intensified by the piano and later in a Brucknerian sequence by the string instruments, before tension relaxes into a major key conclusion. The clarinet begins the graceful final movement with a melody of classical proportions, borrowed from the blind Austrian organist and composer Josef Labor, former court pianist to the blind King of Hanover and Wittgenstein’s teacher in Vienna. The romantic potentialities of the theme are dexterously explored in the variations that follow, a tribute both to Paul Wittgenstein and his teacher.
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