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Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, August 2011

SCHMIDT-KOWALSKI, T.: Symphony No. 3 / Cello Concerto (N. Schneider, SWR Kaiserslautern Orchestra, Neuman) 8.551212
SCHMIDT-KOWALSKI, T.: Symphony No. 4 / Violin Concerto No. 2 (G. Sussmuth, SWR Kaiserslautern Orchestra, M. Neuman) 8.551246
SCHMIDT-KOWALSKI, T.: Impressionen / Meditationen / Leidenschaft und fruher Tod / Die Wiederkehr von Atlantis / Sternennacht (Schmidt-Kowalski) 8.551281

German-born-and-trained Thomas Schmidt-Kowalski (b. 1949) recently made his CROCKS debut…on a Querstand CD featuring some of his symphonic music, and here are three additional Naxos discs with more of the same. Previously jewel case hard copies of these were only available from Germany, but now you can get them in the U.S. from Records International…While we did have some reservations about the performances on the Querstand release, that’s not the case with any of these. However, it should be noted that the album notes are only in German.

As we told you in the earlier newsletter…this composer started out as an avantgardist, but soon rejected modernism in favor of a stylistic return to the romantic days of yore. Accordingly there are wisps of Schumann (1810–1856), Bruckner (1824–1896), Brahms (1833–1897), Dvořák (1841–1904) and Richard Strauss (1864–1948) wafting through his music. Yet it’s far from derivative, because Schmidt-Kowalski (S-K) is a consummate melodist with an uncanny ability to creatively blend and repackage the old, all of which give his creations considerable individuality.

The first CD begins with his third symphony completed in 2000, which may bring Schumann as well as Brahms to mind. In three movements, the first is a melodically appealing, solidly structured sonata form allegro. It’s followed by a scherzo with Brucknerian-accented outer sections surrounding a relaxed pastoral inner one.

Lasting almost as long as what’s come before, and chromatically more liberal, the final adagio is the symphony’s emotional focal point. There’s a harmonic fluidity here recalling Mahler (1860–1911), which seems to be an S-K trademark.

The disc concludes with the cello concerto of 2002 that’s haunted by the specters of Beethoven (1770–1827) and Saint-Saëns (1835–1921). Also in three movements, the opening allegro is a tune-swept rhapsody with immediate appeal. There’s an extended meditative cadenza towards the end, and then the movement concludes in triumphant excitement.

Classical simplicity and restraint characterize the tender adagio, where the composer limits himself to only a couple of brief romantic outbursts. There’s a melodic inventiveness worthy of Richard Strauss that contrasts most effectively with the businesslike finale. Here hints of past ideas take a final cyclic bow, and then the concerto ends matter-of-factly.

S-K couldn’t have better advocates than conductor Manfred Neuman and the Kaiserslautern SWR Radio Philharmonic of Germany. They give a stirring account of the symphony, and together with cellist Nikolai Schneider make a strong case for the concerto.

The recordings project a tunneled soundstage in a highly reverberant acoustic, which will appeal to those liking wetter sonics. The instrumental timbre in both pieces is a bit wiry on the top end, and the cello tone somewhat pinched in the concerto.

The fourth symphony written in 2003 is featured on the second disc pictured above. In the usual four movements, it begins broodingly somewhat like the opening of Schumann’s fourth (1841, revised 1851), but the mood soon brightens with a perky little riff (PL) [track-1, beginning at 02:24] that introduces a couple of memorable heroic ideas (MH). An emotional development with a dramatic march-like episode based on PL follows, and then the mood once again turns somber. But not for long as PL and MH return, prefacing a boisterous concluding coda.

There are lovely impassioned Brahmsian passages along with austere Straussian brass outbursts in the attractive andante. But not one to let things become a romantic quagmire, S-K follows it with a playful scherzo. It’s easy to imagine this as describing some rustic village previously visited by Dvořák.

The symphony ends atypically with another andante. This is a romantically charged contemplation of a tune, which with a little stretch of the imagination could be from the duet “Abends will ich schlafen gehn” (“When at night I go to sleep”) in Humperdinck’s (1854–1921) Hänsel & Gretel (1893). A Brucknerian chorale based on it, and playful references to past ideas bring the work to a vivacious conclusion.

The CD is filled out with S-K’s second violin concerto of 2005, which many may find the most romantically compelling work on any of these discs. In three movements, the initial allegro is a gorgeous testimonial to the neoromantic out of Brahms, but with melodic and harmonic subtleties reminiscent of Hans Pfitzner (1869–1949…).

It’s followed by a moving amorous romance, and then a rhythmically quirky, thematically infectious rondo. Chromatically adventurous and embroidered with some fancy fiddling, it ends the concerto in colorful fashion. Violinist Gernot Süssmuth’s superb playing makes it all the more enjoyable.

With the same conductor, orchestra, venue and technical personnel as the first disc, the performances and recorded sound are very similar on both. So rather than repeating ourselves, please see the above.

The third album is entitled “Symphonische Dichtungen” (“Symphonic Poems”), which is a little misleading as only three of the six works on it appear to be programmatic. The first that would seem to qualify is Sternennacht (Starry Night) [track-1]. Originally for chamber ensemble (1989–90), the composer later expanded it for large orchestra (2007), which is the version presented here. It bears the same name as Vincent van Gogh’s (1853–1890) celebrated painting (1889), and like that there’s a dreamy cosmic aura about S-K’s musical landscape that’s most appealing.

Leidenschaft und früher Tod (Passion and Early Death) [track-6] from 2004 is billed as a symphonic fantasy. It begins in a mood of quiet optimism that soon turns heroically combative. But the strife soon transitions into lush conciliatory passages, which the album notes tell us represent assurances there’s some form of existence after death. In that regard Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration, 1888–89) comes immediately to mind.

The third tone poem, Die Wiederkehr von Atlantis (The Return from Atlantis, 2005) [track-7], was inspired by that legendary isle. First mentioned in Plato’s (424–347 BC) dialogues (c. 360 BC), it apparently represents for the composer the Golden Age of Greece when reason and harmony prevailed. Accordingly his music brims over with radiance and confidence, recalling one of the high points in human history.

The remaining three pieces include an elegy for viola and orchestra as well as what are in essence two suites for strings. The former selection [track-5] composed in 2008 is dominated by an ardency perfectly suited to a solo instrument commonly considered the most amorous member of the string family.

The suites, entitled Meditationen (Meditations) and Impressionen (Impressions), date from 2006–07 and 1999 respectively. The first is in three poignant sections [tracks-2 through 4] appropriately labeled “Trauermusik” (“Funeral Music”), “Trost” (“Consolation”) and “Versöhnung” (“Reconciliation”).

The other is in five movements [tracks-8 through 12] and begins with a peaceful beatific andante. It’s followed by a fetching three-part scherzo with waltz-like outer sections surrounding a soaring central intermezzo. The work then ends with a reverent adagio that’s the most beautiful movement of all, making this diminutive unassuming suite one of the high points on all three discs.

The Leipzig Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer delivers authoritative, loving performances of everything. And violist Emilian Dascal seems to fare much better in the elegy than the concerto included on the Querstand disc mentioned above.

Compared to the previous two symphonic CDs, these recordings present a better proportioned soundstage in a less reverberant venue. However, the instrumental timbre remains a bit wiry on the top end.

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