Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2; Rondeau brillant, Op. 101
Ulster Orchestra/Howard Shelley (piano)
Hyperion CDA68389 75:45 mins
The German composer Aloys Schmitt (1788-1866) is even less known today than his coeval Ferdinand Ries, and this recording is a brave attempt to rectify the situation. In 1955 Percy Scholes described him as ‘a notable pedagogue, and young people of all civilised nations have passed millions of hours in his company by the medium of “Exercises”,’ though Scholes admits these are ‘now largely discarded as lacking musical interest’. He was a celebrated keyboard virtuoso, and as Jeremy Nicholas explains in his liner note, he knew Weber, Paganini, Liszt and Chopin, and was friends with Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn.
Chopin described him as a ‘very competent person’, but on hearing one of his concerts wrote to his teacher Josef Elsner that Aloys ‘had a rough reception although he is over forty and composes eighty-year-old music’. Writing of Aloys’s Rondeau brilliant, Robert Schumann made the same point: ‘We have got past that… style of music in which the composer and the virtuoso allow each other to shine by turns.’ Musical fashion had leapt on ahead, leaving Aloys and his ilk far behind.
With Howard Shelley directing charismatically from the keyboard, the works here suggest that Aloys was a major virtuoso, and that his prime purpose as a composer was indeed to let his dexterity shine. There are moments when this skilfully-crafted music evokes memories of Mozart and Field, but the loudest echoes are of Beethoven: several movements begin in credible Beethoven mode, though none maintains that quality to its end. Aloys’s overriding concern was to dazzle with his effects: he had nothing to ‘say’. But it all does what it says on the tin, and Nicholas is right to suggest that it could find a congenial home at a classical radio station.