FRANZ SCHALK

1863-1931

After dining on tafelspitz at a gemuetlich restaurant near St. Stephen’s in central Vienna a few years ago (Schubert ate there if I remember right) my wife and I spotted plaques on nearby buildings commemorating the presence therein in earlier years of assorted notables, Billy Wilder, Franz Schalk . . . It seemed fitting to find Schalk’s name and in this upmarket bezirk too, he was born in Vienna, devoted most of his adult life to the Vienna Opera down the road and subscribed with relish to the why worry? style of café-nourished musicmaking indigenous to the Whipped Cream Society by the not-always-pretty Danube. As Bruno Walter, Schalk’s better-known colleague, has written in Theme and Variations, “he was filled with the local musical tradition.”

Key words for Schalk’s style include buoyant, mellifluous, worldly, absolutely unpedantic. His was an upfront while laidback style, devoid of fancy concepts or hifalutin’ interpretation. Scarcely obsessed with elegance, not 100 percent finicky about rhythmic precision, Schalk knew charm when he saw it beckoning from the page, and pathos in conservative helpings was part of his standard artistic equipment. When he felt a piece should move with theatric urgency he turned on the tailwind but he was also an expert in the lightly-accented no-push dawdle which, applied at the right moment, comes so naturally to ranks, files and geniuses among Vienna’s practicing musicians.

A little chapter and verse after listening to Schalk’s late Twenties Beethoven recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic . . . no detail is more charming than the Alphonse/Gaston situation he finds so effortlessly in the third movement of the Eighth, we’re talking measures 19-24, especially 23-24, a little after the double bar and just before the movement’s opening reasserts itself: there are wind and string exchanges here, in arpeggio form at first, then at 23-24 in dainty chords, pianissimo, and with Schalk’s relaxing-then-greater-relaxing of the tempo in this delicately suggestive passage one has the impression — since deceleration heightens politeness! — that Alph and old Gas will resolve their little dither of “who-goes-first?” by exiting simultaneously, like Ford and Falstaff in the second act of Verdi’s comic opera.

In the opening movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Schalk virtually achieves the near-manic metronome marking of the score, d = 66, which is to say that while he hits this number on occasion his pacing averages at least a full notch lower on Herr Maelzel’s dangerous mechanism. Beethoven’s 66 contradicts, of course, his request for allegro ma non troppo: any good legal mind could probably prove therefore that Beethoven’s metronome was malfunctioning or the composer was having a very bad hair day and became confused. At all events, Schalk manages to make speed work – as does Michael Gielen on a DVD from many years later! — combined as it is with delicacy and charm.

The second movement, the Scene by the Brook, comes on a little heavily, mit schmaltz, the rhythm a bit too loose: a Boulez type would have a fit over Schalk’s deficiency in merging the murmurous and the crisp, which is the ideal here. The style of the performance rather suggests the visit of a beloved but baggy-pantsed uncle who isn’t quite as amusing as he thinks he is. But then, as the scene develops, you know what?, it all begins to add up. The profusion of lovely Viennese melodizing (how narcissistic Arnold Rosé’s fiddle section!) becomes absolutely enchanting, delightfully soporific in fact. It’s as if we were reclining in a hammock imbibing some “little” white wine with a good kick to it . . . and then Schalk’s Storm, the fourth movement, snaps like an angry nanny (“you forgot your galoshes, little Hans”), then the benedictory finale that follows is so warm and enveloping it’s as if you were wrapped in great woollens of comfort.

In the opening movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Schalk finds a place for pathos in some rather pensive Morse — the “V” is not all for “Victory” so to speak — and one notes as well graceful modifications of tempo, but nowhere near as much as Arthur Nikisch managed so artfully in the same music. Schalk knows the importance of Beethoven’s admonition of con moto in the succeeding andante which, dare I say it, can become a bore. In the finale I treasure the haunting effect of his gentle and sighing way with Beethoven’s closing theme as it moves so lyrically downward.

And now let’s hear it from Marcel Prawy, that playful historian of the Vienna Opera, who describes the pixie-professorish Schalk as “very thin, with a small beard, and he wore a pince-nez . . . he was extremely well-educated, an out-and-out humanist, and gifted with a cynical, even macabre sense of humor [Schalk’s name means prankster], but behind the façade was a heart of gold.” Which one hears so well in that lyric theme from the Fifth, the comfort of that Pastoral finale . . .