Franz Schmidt’s Clarinet Quintet Unusual, Enticing

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SCHMIDT: Quintet in A for Piano Left Hand, Clarinet & Strings / Linos Ensemble: Konstanze Eickhorst, pianist; Rainer Műller von Recum, clarinetist; Winfried Rademacher, violinist; Matthias Buchholz, violist; Mario Blaumer, cellist / CPO 555 026-2

Paul Wittgenstein had to be the luckiest one-handed pianist in the history of the world. After losing his right arm in World War I, a bevy of famous composers wrote pieces specifically for him, the most famous being Ravel’s Concerto for Piano Left Hand. This massive quintet by Franz Schmidt—it runs nearly 64 minutes!—was one of the composer’s last works, and one in which the piano part, interesting as it is, is only a portion of the overall fabric of the music.

Schmidt was a late Romantic composer and remained one until his death in 1939, but he was a pretty good one. This Quintet was his third work composed for Wittgenstein, completed at the end of June 1938, and in October of that year he wrote a fourth piece for the pianist, a Toccata for Piano Left Hand before dying in February 1939. Interestingly, Schmidt didn’t want this Quintet published during his lifetime, saying “I want to avoid the impression that it is as if I were engaging in polemics against prevailing circumstances in order to situate my teaching activity in a better light.”

The very opening of the first movement, with its pizzicato strings, sounds odd enough to promise something more than Romanticism, and once the music develops there are quite a few chromatic passages—particularly between the seven and ten minute mark—that add interest. There is something charming and appealing about it; my sole complaint was in the cold, thin quality of the string sound and the over-reverberant quality of the recording itself. There is always the chance that the latter colored the former; I have known such things to happen; but in the back of my mind, I kept thinking that the string players’ lean sound profile, with very little vibrato, did not help add richness and body to the sound.

Nevertheless, the players perform this music with interest and commitment. They obviously relished the chance to record this piece, with its unusual harmonic movement, and thus give us an excellent representation of how the work is meant to sound. The longest exposed passage for the pianist is the second movement Intermezzo, a relaxed, nocturne-like piece that doesn’t really seem to be part of the quintet, which resumes in the quirky and amusing third-movement Scherzo. Here the playful chromatics of the first movement takes on an almost grotesque character, certainly a playful one, with the violin skittering above the other instruments, the clarinet first filling in chords before making its own commentary to the proceedings while the piano plays continuous double-time single notes beneath them. There is a surprisingly lyrical episode in the midst of this musical chaos, where the uptempo 3/8 of the previous section relaxes into an almost Viennese-like waltz. Then, at the nine-minute mark, the music not only resumes its madcap former pace but also does so with a sudden upward burst of chromatic movement similar to the “Wasser ist blut” scene from Berg’s Wozzeck.

Annotator Eckhardt van der Hoogen correctly states that Schmidt’s music has “only one defect to its detriment – our own lack of patience.” He quotes fellow-composer Joseph Marx, who said that “The man can wait and his music, too.” You had better have time set aside for listening to Schmidt; his is not music-on-the-run, but clearly constructed in such a way that constant attention must be paid to the progression of the tones. The notion of music in “sound bites” would have been completely foreign to him, and nowhere is this more evident than in the dolorous yet fascinating 15-minute Adagio in which the strings dominate the proceedings for much of the time, the clarinet only heard prominently in certain passages. Interesting, too, that in this slow movement the piano acts almost solely as accompaniment, not really interacting with the other four instruments as much as it did in the first and third movements. At the 14-minute mark, there is an amazing passage where the top four instruments shift the tonality, via upwards chromatic changes, from B major to G major, where they suspend a chord while the piano plays a filigree around them.

The last movement is an almost 13-minute set of variations on a theme by Joseph Labor. The initial tune is played up to 3:41 exclusively by the piano, whereupon the tempo increases and the other four instruments enter, immediately creating a more bucolic mood. There’s a little touch of Mahler in the string and clarinet trills at one point, but it is fleeting; the minor-key variation almost recalls Schubert in one of his darker moods (think of Death and the Maiden), albeit with more forward momentum in the rhythm. Then we get a variant in F major, now led by the piano with the others dropping notes in here and there for color, and a livelier, almost scherzo-like episode in A major. Schmidt was nothing if not resourceful in the way he composed.

This is an interesting and lively piece with some remarkable passages in it, certainly better than the average post-Romantic work of its time. To a certain extent, its harmonic setting sounds more French than German, yet the construction is more Teutonic than Saxon. An interesting work!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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