Mary Louise Boehm has made a career of searching out forgotten lights. Her most successful foray led to the rediscovery of Amy Beach, a major composer of the turn-of-the-century New England school, who has since been served well on CD. Not all safaris lead to gold, however. Ernest Schelling, a major figure in New York from the early 1900s to his death in 1939 (he began the New York Philharmonic Children's Concerts), enjoyed while he lived a successful career as composer, pianist, and conductor. But for Ms. Boehm, he would probably have remained a plaque on the wall or a footnote in someone else's biography.
It's not that Schelling's a bad composer, exactly. He has a mastery of keyboard textures, solid harmony and counterpoint, and worthy ambitions. However, he doesn't seem to have much original or particularly interesting to say. His music, like most of the piano music of his time, derives from Chopin and Liszt. Nevertheless, composers like Rachmaninoff, Medtner, and even Korngold – to name three in the same tradition – give you something extra or at least leave a tip – a memorable tune, powerfully original harmonies, Slavic "soul," or a strongly focused argument. Schelling at his most ambitious seems to be in the Theme and Variations. An interesting chromatic idea (harmonically reminiscent of the passacaglia finale to Brahms' fourth symphony) gets sent through fifteen blameless variations. The variations themselves, however piquant, never rise above that. The variation form has its pitfalls. Since at least Beethoven, we expect the composer to play a double game: a "vertical" one which tries to infuse the individual variant with wit, invention, and poetry; a "horizontal" one which aims at a cumulative power for the set. The high point for me is Brahms' Haydn Variations or Elgar's Enigma, with their magnificent perorations. Schelling tries to work the first trick with varying success but seems to be unaware of the second, beyond the awareness that he should "end big." I did enjoy "Ritmicissimo" from 1928, but it sounds like warmed-over Albéniz. Compared to Gershwin and Donaldson's "Rialto Ripples," let alone Bartók's Sonata, it's a weak sister.
Perhaps Ms. Boehm is not the most persuasive advocate. She seems merely to be hitting the notes, rather than making music, but this fault may stem from the music itself. After all, I've never heard anyone else play Schelling. Rhythms in particular come off stiffly and there's little sense of line. The piano sounds light, and apparently the engineers have tried unsuccessfully to mask this by goosing the bass. The gambit, however, merely deadens the tone.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz