Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 14 June 2010

Heinrich Kaspar Schmid: Chamber Works

Heinrich Kaspar Schmid
Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano Op.114 [25:34]
Sonata for Flute and Piano Op.106 [18:02]
Allegretto for Clarinet and Piano Op.34/2 [6:17]
Sonata for Viola and Piano Op.111 [22:28]
Capriccio for Flute and Piano Op.34/4 [7:15]
Nils Mönkemeyer – viola
Johannes Zurl – clarinet
Pirmin Grehl – flute
Nicholas Rimmer – piano
Recorded BR München, Studio 2, 14-15 December 2007 and 17 February 2008 Stereo DDD
CPO 777 391-2 [79:58]
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Heinrich Kaspar Schmid was definitely an also-ran in the history of German music in the 20th century. He was born in Landau in Bavaria in 1874 and during his lifetime was as famous for his work as head of the Karlsruhe Conservatory and later the Augsburg Music School as he was for his composition. The works on this disc are from his later years and display an unbending loyalty to the musical aesthetics of the late 19th century, not least those of Brahms.

Apparently folk music was an important element of Schmid’s musical vocabulary, but there is little of it to be found here. In general, the music could be described as Brahms-lite, and Schmid shares his hero’s knack for pithy yet attractive melodic lines. The music is generally less contrapuntal than that of Brahms, and his climaxes don’t quite pack the same punch. But traditional as it all is, it is difficult to think of a contemporary who provides a fitting comparison – it’s less congested than Reger, less Wagnerian than Pfitzner, less declamatory than Franz Schmidt – suggesting there is something unique about this music after all.

The diversity of the works presented here makes for an attractively varied programme. The Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano Op.114 is the longest and most involved work, and there is more drama in its opening movement than on the rest of the CD put together. 

The lightness of Schmid’s textures can make the remainder of the Trio seem lacking in substance, but in the Sonata for Flute and Piano Op.106 it provides the ideal medium for the flute as a solo instrument. This is a charming work and is probably the finest piece in the selection. There are certain similarities to Poulenc, especially in the way that both composers are able to weave varied and intricate textures for the flute without ever resorting the sorts of heavier textures it might struggle with.

The Allegretto for Clarinet and Piano and the Capriccio for Flute and Piano Op.34 nos. 2 and 5 respectively, are elegant but largely insignificant concert works. Again, both display an impressive aptitude for idiomatic woodwind writing, although sadly little else.

The Sonata for Viola and Piano Op.111 is a more significant work. It, too, feels lacking in musical substance, but the various light duet textures between the two instruments are never less than entertaining. A lot of the viola writing is in lower part of the instrument’s register, and while it occasionally manages to approach the timbre of the cello, for the most part these lower passages serve to emphasise the distinctiveness of the viola sound from that of the violin.

The performances are good but not great. The viola player is the weak link in the line-up with an often abrasive tone and persistent intonation problems. That said, his performance in the sonata is markedly superior to that in the Trio. If any player excels, it is the flautist, whose tone is both warm and focussed, and who makes a very impressive case indeed for the flute sonata. The piano sounds a little distant in the mix, but then Schmid doesn’t really use it soloistically in these works anyway. 

The liner notes are similar in spirit to Schmid’s music, in that they are very long but don’t contain very much information. It is more biographical than musical and is filled with bizarre irrelevances. For example, we are told that after his retirement, Schmid moved to the Bavarian village of Geiselbullach, interesting in itself perhaps, but why then are we given the directions to get there by road from Munich? “ drives on the A8 toward Stuttgart and takes the Dachau-Fürstenfledbrück exit.”

Perhaps Heinrich Kaspar Schmid is due a revival. The musical voice presented by these works is one of melodic fluency and formal coherency, if perhaps a slight lack of invention and a large lack of adventurousness. Worth a listen though if you are a Brahms chamber music fan who can’t quite stomach Reger. And also highly recommended to flute soloists on the lookout for additions to their meagre repertoire. The Flute Sonata deserves to be better known, and could yet prove its worth on the recital stage.

Gavin Dixon 2010

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