Closing the Ringstrasse
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto # 27
Franz Schmidt: Symphony # 2
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)
Arnold Schoenberg once said about Siegfried Wagner that he was “the greatest composer whose music you never heard”. Had he not been so immersed in Viennese culture, he might have reserved that distinction for another of his contemporaries, Franz Schmidt. Curiously, Schmidt is considered to this day in the Austrian capital as a major composer, an important link in the Haydn to Webern unbroken chain, his monumental cantata The Book with the Seven Seals an acknowledged modern classic. But in the rest of the world, his name is hardly known at all, existing today only as a footnote in the histories of many famous musicians of his era (pupil of both Bruckner and Leschetizky, his fifteen minutes came as a cellist, the central figure in the personnel wars of the Vienna Philharmonic under Mahler, and he is also on that long list of composers who wrote for Paul Wittgenstein’s left hand). One reason for his neglect may be that his music is often too sunny and positive, generally celebrating the search for beauty in an 18th century manner not fashionable in the angst ridden 20th (the perception that Mahler’s Symphony # 7 is his weakest effort radiating from this same psychosocial nucleus). Only Schmidt’s 4th Symphony, written after the death of his daughter, achieves the proper degree of anguish for acceptance in our contemporary age, but, of course, his sufferings come to naught if never presented. Every few years, one of his pieces blips across the New York radar screen and this season it is his ebullient Symphony # 2.
The work is essentially a Classically constructed symphony with one extremely clever peccadillo. There are three rather than four movements, but the second of these, a set of charming variations, is the longest and contains a full blown scherzo as its penultimate offering, creating the illusion of a standard quadrilateral structure. The excellent performance last evening by the Philadelphia Orchestra emphasized the expansiveness of the melodic lines, pantheistic orations on a large stage. The positively gorgeous and lush string playing gave this unjustly neglected work its due for the first time in my hearing (only a scattered handful of performances over the years). Many patrons left the hall before this fine traversal, once they discovered that Herr Schmidt did indeed expire in the twentieth century. A shame, but somehow not a surprise.
Mozart, Pollini, Sawallisch. Need I say more? This reading was magical in its crystalline delicacy and nobility, the brief runs so exact in this superb pianist’s steady hands. The third movement was uncharacteristically elfin by Pollini’s rather harsh standards and was a joyful confection and a treat for the ear. The larghetto was sublime, Signor singing along, ala Gould, not the melody but rather a chorale-like obbligato seemingly learned from a higher authority. Those great passages in Hermann Hesse describing Mozart as a living, breathing immortal seemed all the more real this night.
Thus ends another season at Carnegie Hall, the crown jewel in our own Ringstrasse on the Upper West Side, one especially memorable within the context of the unique New York experience of these past Technicolor months. A brief respite and off we go again: Daniel Barenboim will be here before we know it with three promising opening nights featuring his powerful Chicago Symphony. I’m already marking my calendar.
Frederick L. Kirshnit