When the revolution closed the University, Bortkiewicz wrote, “I soon noticed, with utmost disgust, that the political movement of those so-called leaders was aimed not at creating but destroying the state.” He eventually managed to leave Russia, and furthered his musical education and exposure in Leipzig, Munich and Berlin. His first attempts at composition did not find favor, and after playing his Piano Concerto No. 1, Opus 1, Bortkiewicz destroyed the music. However, parts of this concerto apparently resurfaced in the commission for Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein himself played the premiere of his Bortkiewicz concerto in 1923 in Vienna, and he was pleased with the work. In the event, the commission did not provide a huge boost to Bortkiewicz’s career, and he spent his final decades in virtual anonymity as a teacher in Vienna.
Sergei Bortkiewicz – Concerto No.2 for piano left-hand and orchestra, op.28
Paul Wittgenstein always was, and always would be, a performer of Romantic virtuosity. He thrived on the sense of inconceivable technical mastery of the instrument, and performed for the bewildered admiration from his audience. And he certainly celebrated the Romantic notion of artistic freedom in performance. No wonder that modernism and its eclectic musical guises calling for faster tempos and a strict and precise reproduction of the musical score, was not his cup of tea. Wittgenstein’s conception of music, virtuosity and tradition was based on his belief in the unchanging validity and aesthetic of the musical past. This retrospective conception frequently clashed with the relativist historicism practiced by many of the composers he commissioned, and who looked at the musical past with a sense of historical consciousness. Sergei Prokofiev probably most aptly expressed this aesthetic fissure in 1931, when he wrote to Wittgenstein “I have racked my brain trying to predict what sort of impression my concerto will make upon you as music. Difficult problem! You are a musician of the nineteenth century I am a composer of the 20th.” Wittgenstein’s reply upon receipt of the concerto further emphasized the artistic tension between performer and composer, as he writes: “Dear Sir, Thank you very much for the concerto. However, I don’t understand a single note and I will not perform it,” and he never did.
Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto (left hand) No. 4, Op. 53
In his compositions for Paul Wittgenstein, Franz Schmidt—with plenty of advice and help from the pianist—lavished extraordinary care and detail on the intellectual, musical and performing properties of the piano part. Not only did Schmidt consider the piano to be an integral artistic and musical member of the ensemble, he also acknowledged the importance of the visual aspects of performance. Throughout Wittgenstein’s career, embodied virtuosity became, after all, the natural consequence of the pianists desire for artistic and musical autonomy. On one hand, Schmidt’s music highlights Wittgenstein’s courageous attempt to overcome the technical demands of the instrument, and on the other, it brings into sharp focus the relationship between virtuosity and the musical text. Wittgenstein expected to be the musical and visual focal point during performance, and to hear Wittgenstein perform also meant to see Wittgenstein perform. Franz Schmidt did not fight against the visual demands of the performance, but musically supported the pianist’s wishes. He even included a solo-cadenza as an introduction to the concluding movement in the G-major quintet, adding an element of blatant virtuosity to the chamber-music genre. Wittgenstein sought to reintroduce and extend a perceived equilibrium of artistic collaboration between composer and performer, but unable to partake in the paradigm shift of performing practice demanded by the positivist aspects of neoclassical modernism, found in Franz Schmidt a most sympathetic collaborator.
Franz Schmidt: Quintet for clarinet, piano (left hand alone), violin, viola and cello in B- flat