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Franz Mittler: Sonatas for Violin and Cello

Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Major (1910)

Sonata for Violin and Piano in D Major (1909)

Con Brio Ensemble • CON BRIO 21042 (47:33)

A multi-talented musical polyglot, Franz Mittler (1893-1970) studied piano and composition in his native Vienna. His successful European career as pianist, accompanist, vocal coach, and composer was cut short when the Nazis annexed Austria. In 1938, he emigrated to America, where he became known for writing and arranging educational material.

These world-premiere recordings were discovered at the Austrian National Library in Vienna in 2000 by Mottler's daughter, a tireless advocate of his works on stage and disc. Written when the composer was still a teenager–the Violin Sonata in 1909, the Cello Sonata in 1910–the sonatas are full of contrasts, from genial, sprightly, and humorous to dreamy, dark, and solemn, and they are pervaded by an unabashed, youthful romanticism.

These works never sound derivative, but naturally display outside influences, most noticeably Richard Strauss in the Violin Sonata. The harmonies are tonal and the melodies sing and soar, sending the cellist and especially the violinist into the stratosphere for long stretches.

As in much Viennese music, a waltz is always just below the surface, as is a Gypsy dance, Hungary still being part of Austria at that time.

The playing is most excellent: technically brilliant and secure, tonally intense and expressive in all registers and combinations, musically involved and communicative, exemplary in ensemble and balance. Highly recommended.

—E.E. - Strings Magazine, December 2010

Excerpts from Backbeat column - May/June 2008 CHAMBER MUSIC MAGAZINE
Chamber Music You Didn’t Know You Loved

Paris wasn’t the only city with a Lost Generation

by Jens F. Laurson

Franz Mittler’s 1909 String Quartet No.1 sounds like an old acquaintance from the first note on. It is a happy, not a derivative familiarity- to anyone interested in very good late Romantic Viennese quartet-writing.

Mittler is another composer from that period that has brought us so many ( largely underrated or forgotten composers), such as Marx, Schreker, Wellesz, Zeisl, and Zemlinsky.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate or like modern music. I do- but the attitudes that go along with it have for too long been damning of everything that does not accord with the spirit of modernism. This has had the effect of effectively suppressing the music of the time of Schoenberg to the point where such glorious composers as Alexander Zemlinsky or Franz Scheker need ardent champions to get any playtime at all. And that’s our—everyone’s—loss.

Franz Mittler and his delectable music are a case in point. Mittler was born in 1893 into a family with Jewish roots. He sensed the threat looming over Europe, and by 1938 he had emigrated to New York, though not before having made his debut as a violinist in a recital with pianist Clara Haskil ( he was 11years old; she was nine), performed with the Rosé Quartet and become Karl Kraus’ favorite accompanist. When Mittler married a fellow Viennese in his New York exile, none other than Erich Zeisl was his best man.

Mittler, like Korngold, must have been endowed with a particularly sunny nature and good sense of humor. He would not have composed Chico Marx’s “One Finger Polka” otherwise. Even in his string quartets, composed when he was still in Vienna, you can hear a nature that does not have time for those very serious and stern quartets with their furrowed bows. No sour, thin-lipped academicism here. That’s doubly astonishing: The string quartet has been -at least since Beethoven finished with them- considered the most serious, severe, compositional form. And 1915-1918, when Mittler wrote his third quartet, were not exactly happy years for the continent.

Instead Mittler, a lieutenant in the Imperial and Royal Army, seems to have taken the wistful beauty of a disintegrating multi-ethnic empire as his inspiration, not the carnage. Each movement of his third quartet depicts the region of the empire he was at the time stationed in. A “Wolhynian” first movement, a “Serbian “ second movement, and the slow movement titled “Styria” lead to the wild and vividly descriptive “Rapsodia Ungherese”. It’s all absolutely beautiful.

As the work of a sixteen year old, the first string quartet stands up to other teenage masterworks in the chamber category: Think Bridge’s Sextet, Mendelssohn’s Octet. Perhaps this is a “First Love” moment—but so far I respond even to this early quartet with greater enthusiasm than to those of the child-prodigy Korngold, to which they might be easily compared. And the third is an absolute treasure, anyway.

Mittler represents a generation lost and hopefully now regained. The music has received too little attention and greatly deserves more. The recording of the quartets, played with so much conviction, heart, and skill by the Hugo Wolf Quartett, is a great step towards this end; and they should be—alongside the works of Erich Zeisl and Josef Marx—on your music shelf, if you have any interest in this style and period.

Jens F Laurson is classical critic-at-large for WETA, in Washington, D.C. This essay—inspired by a new CPO recording of Mittler’s work from the Hugo Wolf Quartett—is adapted from Laurson’s February 29, 2008 column on the WETA-FM website.