Franz Schmidt’s Surprising Music

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SCHMIDT: Variations on a Hussar’s Song; Phantasiestück für Klavier und Orchester ; Chaconne für Orchester in d / Jasminca Stančul, pianist; German State Philharmonic of the Rheinland-Pfalz; Alexander Rumpf, conductor / Capriccio C5274

Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) studied piano with the great Theodore Leschetitzky, cello with Ferdinand Hellmesberger, composition with Robert Fuchs and harmony and counterpoint with Anton Bruckner. He played cello in the Vienna Philharmonic and in the Vienna Court Orchestrs, but quit the latter in 1914 to could concentrate on composition and teaching piano. He was awarded a piano professorship at the Vienna Academy of Music, where he later became vice-chancellor, and also privately taught cello (among his pupils were Josef Dichler, Alfred Rosé, Theodor Berger and Marcel Rubin. In 1937 he resigned due to health problems and died two years later.

Ironically, despite his renown as a pianist and cellist, Schmidt is most widely known for his organ works as well as his oratorio, The Book With Seven Seals, yet he also wrote symphonies, the operas Notre Dame and Fredigundis (the latter of which is often cited as the greatest opera no one has ever heard of), and much chamber music—all of it rather obscure to today’s audiences. This CD focuses on his even less-well-known orchestral works, including a Fantasy for piano and orchestra.

Since this was my first exposure to Schmidt, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was quickly taken by his unusual way with music. Particularly in the Variations on a Hussar’s Song (written 1930-31), one hears a very personal means of expression: decidedly German in structure, yet using several “crushed” or extended chords in the manner of French composers (one thinks not only of Ravel but also of Kochelin). Unlike his teacher Bruckner who, as an acquaintance of mine put it, only wrote “a series of endings,” Schmidt’s score shows real development, albeit in a very personal and somewhat strange vein. In some places the shifting orchestral chords put me in mind of Scriabin a little bit…one wonders if he heard any of the Russian’s music. The bottom line is a sort of “German impressionism”; one might say the stepchild of Wagner and Debussy, but it is very attractive; note, for instance, how in the “Theme and Variations” Schmidt makes the melodic line move the harmony rather than the other way round. This is the kind of harmonic-melodic interaction once often hears from very advanced jazz musicians but almost never from classical composers of Schmidt’s generation. Alexander Rumpf has a tremendous feel for this music, conducting with both great sensitivity and a fine sense of musical line…listen to his superbly controlled legato in the “Lento” section with its constantly shifting chords (particularly within the horn section). It is so rare, in fact, to hear conducting on this high a level from the younger generation of maestros that I can only hope that we hear much more from this highly gifted musician.

The Phantasiestücke is a very early work, composed in 1899 when Schmidt was only 22 years old, and thus somewhat more conventional in structure, yet there are touches (such as at the 1:40 mark) of the kind of fluid harmonic movement that would become his hallmark. The piano writing, though brilliant, is rather conventional, verging on a tune that one can hum but never quite getting there. Pianist Stančul plays the ebullient score with good tone and style, but all in all this wasn’t my cup of tea, although in this work Schmidt surprisingly captures a sort of Spanish sound, a bit like Granados.

Happily, in the Chaconne (also from 1930-31) we end the recording on the same type of music one heard in the Hussar song variations. In tempo and feeling, this score bears a certain resemblance to Richard Strauss’ Metmorphosen for 21 Strings, except that the music is far more substantial and actually goes somewhere. Strauss’ score does not. Here, too, one gets the sense that Schmidt was essentially writing an organ piece for orchestra. At least, in my mind’s ear I kept hearing this played on the organ, with all the various stops one could use to simulate the wind and string textures. Interestingly, this piece also has a very strong Russian flavor, rather like really first-rate Rimsky-Korsakov or Rachmaninov. And once again, one really does marvel at Rumpf’s ability to shape and mold the line with both forward momentum and superb legato.

All in all, this is a recording worth exploring, even if late-period German Romantic music is not your thing. Schmidt’s superb ear for color and especially harmonic movement was so highly evolved that it is almost impossible not to like this music—and Alexander Rumpf is a big reason why it works so well.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “Franz Schmidt’s Surprising Music

  1. Neil Saunders says:

    The Chaconne did indeed originate as an organ piece. It is worth hearing in both versions, but the late Harold Truscott, in his “The Music of Franz Schmidt – 1: The Orchestral Music”, expresses a decided preference for the orchestral transcription on account of its greater textural clarity.


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