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CD Review

Franz Schmidt

String Quartets

  • String Quartet in A Major
  • String Quartet in G Major
Franz Schubert Quartett, Wien
Nimbus NI5467 77:56
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Summary for the Busy Executive: A Viennese master.

Music historians generally look at the so-called "big picture." They see movements and enumerate the characteristics of a culture. The broad view can be a useful one, but it can also distort. In a very real sense, there are no artistic movements, but individual artists, and a culture consists not of traits, but of a spectrum of viewpoints. Baroque music didn't end with the deaths of Bach and Handel, even though galant composers and even early Haydn were by then producing in newer styles. Many times we see old and new at work simultaneously in the same piece. Is Mahler's Symphony #7, for example, late Romantic, early modern, or something other? Unless a composer resolutely shuts out all music other than his own (and not very many composers have done so), he finds a spot along a continuum, because he hears and marks – positively or negatively – his contemporaries.

I first came across Franz Schmidt's music after reading an article by Harold Truscott in Penguin's The Symphony, Volume 2: From Elgar to the Present Day, a volume edited by British symphonist Robert Simpson. If you can follow examples in musical type, this remains an invaluable book for the beginner and even beyond. Schmidt hardly counts as a household name even now – how much less at the time of Truscott's writing – and Truscott's was one of the first English-language articles on the composer. Schmidt (1874-1939) dies well into modernism's heyday, but, superficially at least, the music shares more with Brahms, Bruckner, Strauss, and Mahler than with Schoenberg, Hindemith, Toch, or Weill. Truscott argues for Schmidt as Bruckner's one true heir. I find few similarities myself, except in harmonic language. The personalities of the two strike me as no more alike than two fin de siecle Frenchman picked randomly off the street. Both will speak French, and dress may very well be similar. But the word "heir" implies a family connection. I don't hear it myself, despite the fact that Schmidt studied with the older composer. To me, Schmidt's music is more disturbing than Bruckner's and displays greater technical resource, although this doesn't mean he's necessarily the greater composer. Schmidt's music at its most interesting presents a Janus head – simultaneously looking to late Romanticism (although with less obvious reliance on Wagnerian harmony than Bruckner) and, in its emotional ambivalence and even distance, to modernism. In short, I find him as Romantic (and as Modern) as Mahler or – to take a similar figure from another field – the painter Gustav Klimt.

Both of Schmidt's string quartets come from well into the Twenties (1925 and 1929), but in sound and attitude toward materials they could have appeared thirty years before or perhaps even earlier. The Viennese loved Schmidt's music and honored it with many prizes. He had a good career and deserved it. Nevertheless, the world at large forgot the music for two reasons. First, the music had no star champion outside of Austria, as Mahler had with Walter, Bernstein, and, to some extent, Horenstein – people willing to muscle unfamiliar music few willingly heard onto a program. Mehta, as far as I know, was the first in the stereo era to record a Schmidt symphony (the fourth). Second, Schmidt found himself on the wrong side of the Anschluss and actually wrote a "Hymn to the Führer." To some extent, he was buried as fascist – both by the left and by Austrians wishing to sweep the entire period under the rug – but I have no idea whether he had any strong political commitment. In either case, it doesn't affect the music's quality. Far more importantly, however, his music suffered the fate of the unfashionably out-of-date. New music, at least in the United States, often gets programmed for reasons of prestige, and Schmidt had lost out to the Schoenberg circle, as did a whole bunch of Austrian and German composers of varied idioms. The surface of the music also must have seemed "been there, done that" to adventurous programmers and yet thorny to those who, after forty years, still didn't get Mahler. Now, of course, with Mahler's general acceptance and conservative audiences more vocal and less tolerant of most forms of "difficulty" in music – from Elliott Carter all the way to Carl Nielsen and Ravel – Schmidt may well reap the benefits, not that his music doesn't present its own difficulties, but that the harmonic and melodic languages have become familiar.

The String Quartet in A shows a composer who has mastered string writing to such an extent, he doesn't have to impress anybody. It begins with a beautifully flowing theme warmly harmonized, a bit reminiscent of passages in Wagner's Siegfried-Idyl. Yet it's not Wagner's "wisps of themes floating about" usually propelled by sequence (repetition of a phrase, up or down by some regular interval) but a real sonata movement, which may very well be the lesson absorbed from Bruckner or even from Brahms. The movement also sounds less cozy than that bare description. A theme in minor mode undercuts the Gemütlichkeit of the main idea. Jagged dissonances crop up throughout, although a soft dynamic mitigates their sting to such a degree that I suspect few listeners will catch them. The movement displays real freedom in the handling of structure (unlike Bruckner's sonata movements, which tend to rigidity) and tension between a free-wheeling chromaticism and a sharply-defined classical shape.

The second movement, labeled Adagio but striking one more as allegretto in character (like Brahms), presents an interesting conflation of themes and accompaniment: that is, themes derive from and disappear into accompanying figures, which has the effect of stressing each instrument as an independent voice and of shifting tonal colors as one instrument emerges from and another recedes into the background texture. Schmidt sings beautifully here, even elegantly. The themes are free from the clutter of notes usual in late 19th-century music. The ending consists simply of the first violin going from tonic to dominant and back in long rhythmic values, and it just about breaks your heart.

The third movement takes the form of a fugal scherzo, with two trios: the first a Mahler-peasant dance, the second a reminiscence of the gracious first movement. One even gets a hint of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream music, although Schmidt's more deliberate tempo slightly obscures this connection. This is Schmidt at his most charming, even exquisite, and reveals a composer of enormous range – who can range from the apocalypse of the fourth symphony and Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln to a Dresden-china pastoralism. The finale, consisting of an introduction leading to theme and variations, during which the composer explores novel (but not bizarre) string sonorities and even, in one variation, hints of bitonality. The composer begins lyrically, even comfortably, and constructs the movement masterfully with a steady increase of interest and excitement, until it culminates with a restatement of the theme. Nevertheless, the movement doesn't come off like, say, Elgar's Enigma. Schmidt this time out doesn't try to scale Olympus. The work comes off as congenial, as if a satisfactory close to an evening of amateur quartet playing. In its independence of ensemble and problems of intonation arising from its highly chromatic idiom, however, this ease is really an illusion. The work needs a great bunch of string players to make its full effect.

Superficially, the second quartet resembles the first: flowing first movement, slow second, scherzo third, and finale. However, the second quartet is an altogether less breezy matter. The chromaticism, while remaining tonal, gets even heavier than in the first – harmonically more reminiscent of Tristan than, say, Meistersinger. In fact, compared to the first movement of the first quartet, the opening movement of the second comes almost as a slap, even though it sings softly. The independence of voices has also become stronger, quite the reverse of expectation. In general, the more chromatically tonal the music, the more the parts move in lockstep. The voices, indeed, are so rhythmically independent and sing lines of such integrity that it takes a couple of listenings to know which has the burden of the narrative at any given moment. Indeed, the individual voices have such strength that they seem to generate the harmonies, rather than the other way around. Furthermore, the sense of unease only hinted at in the first quartet breaks out onto the surface of the second in the form of more unstable harmonies more consistently applied, louder dynamics, and more insistent, even angry, rhythms.

The second movement, a true adagio, sings of great yearning. Korngold and Schrecker slow movements share this quality. Again, the music doesn't often follow the normal breakdown into song plus accompaniment, but every instrument weaves its own strand in the accompaniment from its own song. Nevertheless, the Schmidt isn't all longing. A pesante theme in the lower registers of the instruments treads like a funeral march. Here, Schmidt reaches the depths of his symphonies. In the richness of its emotion and the solid assurance of its craft, this movement impresses me the more than any other of both quartets.

The scherzo (again, with two trios) seems to stagger – from the unstable harmonies and a rhythmically eccentric cello part – a bit like the finale of Hindemith's third string quartet, written seven years before the Schmidt. The first trio, however – simple and serenely diatonic – tips us off that despite what the scherzo may tell you, this ain't Hindemith. The second trio – also harmonically more secure – sings a bit sadly a theme that in its shape and mood recalls the opening of the Brahms first cello sonata. In an unusual move, Schmidt brings back a bit of the first trio (it's too lovely to forget) before winding up with the unsteady gait of the scherzo.

The finale begins in faux-Baroque contrapuntal geniality, with a hint of the tipsy scherzo. Indeed, the unease of the previous movements seems never far away, despite the fun and games. Nevertheless, Schmidt works the movement toward resolving the disturbances of the previous three. At the last moment, however, he pulls the rug out from any hope of a triumphant or even jolly conclusion, coming down to bare textures and ending, really, on a question.

Despite the familiarity of their idiom, these quartets pose enormous interpretive difficulties – the second quartet more than the first, but the first has many hurdles of its own. Both quartets take a world-class group to reveal them in all their glory. The Schubert Quartet of Vienna really hasn't the richness of tone, for one thing, or quite the soundness of intonation these works demand. Nothing is outright bad or horrifically out of tune, but nothing in their sound allows you to revel in the sheer sonic beauty of these two pieces. Furthermore, the second quartet forces the performers to find its shape (the architecture of the first is much clearer). Again, the Schubert doesn't fall apart, but it seems to be holding on to just this side of intelligibility with its fingernails. I think especially of the opening movement of the second quartet. I also question some of their tempi, particularly in the second's finale, which plods a bit. The rhetorical movement of conflict, apparent resolution, and enigma would become more apparent with a quicker pulse. The marking is, after all, Allegro, and by no stretch of charity do they get beyond moderato. This may be a matter of phrasing and impetus as well. The players seem to hesitate – take a deep mental breath – before arriving at a new section. I'd like to hear someone really chomp into these works. However, don't let these remarks put you off. The performance is good enough to let you know the quartets' considerable stature.

The sound is acceptable.

Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz