Pianist Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the more famous philosopher Ludwig, was a concert pianist who tragically lost his right arm during WW1. Determined to carry on however, he commissioned piano works especially written for him from some very famous composers (the Wittgensteins were extremely wealthy): Serge Prokovief, Erich Korngold, Maurice Ravel, Benjamin Britten, Richard Strauss, Sergei Bortkiewicz (available on a recent CD by the Janacek Philharmonic under David Porceleijn, available from the Nederlands Muziekinstituut website) and Paul Hindemith. Wittgenstein's favourite however was Franz Schmidt, who composed two large scale concertos and a number of chamber works. The two concertos were regularly performed by Wittgenstein and it is therefore quite surprising that only a few recordings of them exist. Two separate CDs, issued by Pan in the 1990s are sadly out of print, extremely expensive, and hard to find (they have the benefit of including the piano quintet and the (organ)Chaconne arranged by Schmidt for orchestra, so unmissable items for completists). Here we find the two compositions on one cd by Carlo Grante and the MDR Radio Symphony orchestra, directed by Fabio Luisi, who has in the meantime moved to the Staatskapelle Dresden.
The Konzertante Variationen on a theme by Beethoven is arguably the most attractive piece, while I find the thematic material of the concerto slightly pedestrian and repetitive, hence the four stars.
Luisi's foremost concern is with clarity and transparency, which makes his other recordings of Schmidt's symphonic works such a joy to the ear, certainly when compared to the older recordings by Michael Halasz (on Marco Polo) and Ludovit Rajter (on Opus) which are not too well balanced and therefore slightly muddy, not always faultlessly played and with clear editing cuts.
Luigi takes his tempos slower than those on the Pan Cds from which the works do not necessarily benefit, but the playing of both orchestra and soloist is beyond reproach, together with great sonics this is a wonderful opportunity to get two under-rewarded and under-recorded pieces of late-romantic music on one disc by one of the greatest symphonic composers of the 20th century.