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On CD: new Schmidt releases

Schmidt: Symphony No. 3. Vassily Sinaisky conducts the Malmö Symphony Orchestra. Naxos.

Schmidt: Concertante Variations on a Theme of Beethoven for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra; Piano Concerto in E flat for the Left Hand. Markus Becker. Eiji Oue conducts the NDR Radiophilharmonie. CPO.

by Mark J. Estren

The music of Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) garnered international awards and frequent performances for decades, then fell into near-total obscurity until recently starting to reemerge in recordings. The strong performances on two new releases help explain both Schmidt's onetime popularity and his later decline: His works are very well put together, but they generally do not engage a listener readily – because, despite their grand Romantic-era scale, their emotive capabilities are limited.
(read more after the jump)

The most successful pieces here have the most rigid formal structures: The Chaconne on Naxos and the Concertante Variations on CPO. The Chaconne, which Schmidt transposed to D minor from his original C-sharp-minor organ version, is formal and elegant, its sections in the Aeolian, Lydian, Dorian and Ionian modes calling on the audience's intellect more than its emotions. The Variations, written for famed pianist Paul Wittgenstein – who lost his right arm in World War I – are filled with virtuosity and extremely well-constructed, but unsubtle and direct in expression.

The Piano Concerto in E flat was also written for Wittgenstein, who preferred Schmidt's works to those that Ravel, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Britten and Richard Strauss wrote for him. The concerto features grand melodies contrasted with pastoral ones, clever use of harmony, and a climactic final-movement cadenza of more than 160 measures. But the work feels studied and rather dry, assembled with care rather than flowing from passion.

Symphony No. 3 has some appealing lyricism and a well-constructed second movement in variation form, in which Schmidt excelled. But it is generally lacking in tunefulness and is easier to admire than enjoy. Schmidt did an expert job of assembling well-wrought, complex works, but there is little that is gripping, much less charming, in the music on these CDs.

--Mark J. Estren

By Anne Midgette  |  August 19, 2010; 5:53 AM ET
Categories:  CD reviews  
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