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Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
Psaume XLVII Op. 38 (1904)* [30:19]
Suite dans l’esprit de suite Op. 89 (1937) [17:49]
La tragédie de Salomé Op. 50 (1909)** [30:09]
Buffle (soprano), Jennifer Walker (soprano)*
Chorus of Wales**
Charles Humphries (organ)*
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thierry Fischer
rec. 24-25 October 2006, Brangwyn Hall, Guildhall, Swansea
French texts and English translations included
Fischer has made a number of previous recordings for Hyperion,
mainly of less familiar French repertoire. However, this
is his first venture into the studios with the BBC National
Orchestra of Wales, whose Principal Conductor he became in
September 2006. To judge by these recordings, made within
a matter of weeks of him taking over the orchestra’s podium,
the partnership may well turn out to be a fruitful one. I
think I’m correct in saying that Psaume XLVII was
included in one of his very first concert programmes with
the orchestra, in Cardiff on 7 October 2006, along with another
gargantuan French piece, Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony.
first encountered the two major works on this disc years
ago on an EMI LP on which Jean Martinon directed French forces.
This was ASD 2892 later reissued on CD as CDC 749748 2. There
is at least one other release that couples both of these
pieces (on Erato), and other examples of Schmitt’s œuvre,
but I haven’t heard those performances.
However, it’s hard to imagine either work being better served
than is the case in these vivid performances.
1900 Schmitt was awarded the Prix de Rome and the psalm setting
was written in 1904, while he was in Italy, as an ‘envoi
de Rome’. One wonders to what extent this was designed as
a display piece, showing off his command of the orchestra
and also his ability to utilise various musical forms – there’s
a short, “mandatory” fugue at the words “Parce que le Seigneur
est tres élevé et tres redoubtable” (track 2). The last thing
one would call this setting of Psalm 47 (or Psalm 46 in the
Catholic psalmody) is restrained. It requires huge orchestral
forces as well as organ, a chorus and a solo soprano. It
contains some ear splitting climaxes and the brass and percussion
sections have a field day. However, it is far from being
an unsubtle piece. It plays continuously although there are
some clearly defined sections – Hyperion split the work up
into four separate tracks. The longest of these, in the middle,
is actually the quietest. Only two of the thirty-two lines
in the Psalm are set in this section, much of which is characterised
by slow, sensuous music, introduced by a languorous passage
that features solo violin and bassoon. This is the part of
the work that requires the solo soprano, here the Anglo-Swiss
singer, Christine Buffle. I can’t recall encountering her
before but she impresses with a performance that mixes ardour
and sensuality. The role is relatively brief in duration
but hugely taxing, requiring the soloist to sing across a
very wide range. Miss Buffle seems to me to be equal to all
the challenges that Schmitt poses.
side of this central section are long stretches of full-blooded
music in which there is much “grand rhetoric and pulverizing
climaxes”, as annotator Calum MacDonald puts it. To be truthful,
parts of the piece are excessive – the last few minutes are
colossal - but it’s tremendously exciting, especially when
the performance carries the conviction and fervour that’s
consistently on display here. Fischer and his Welsh forces
make a tremendous case for the work and whilst it may not
be for everyday listening it’s a marvellous pièce d’occasion.
tragédie de Salomé, which was
written three years later, in 1907, is another piece that
deploys huge forces, including a wordless female chorus
and solo soprano. Surprisingly, however, it originated
in a much more economical form: Schmitt’s original version
was scored for just twenty instruments – it’s unclear if
the vocalists were included in the original scoring. In
1909 Schmitt revised the work into a symphonic suite for
large orchestra, excising three of the work’s eight sections.
It’s this later version that’s been recorded here.
music was for a ballet scenario devised by the writer Robert
d’Humières. This scenario took a different stance to that
adopted by Oscar Wilde – and by Richard Strauss in his opera.
In the version by d’Humières, Salomé is portrayed as a somewhat
innocent girl who is egged on by her mother and doesn’t really
appreciate fully what she is doing in dancing before Herod.
So there’s no Dance of the Seven Veils here. Salomé dances
twice for Herod but when the head of John the Baptist is
brought in she recoils in horror and the closing moments
of the ballet see her rush, panic stricken, from the stage,
pursued by a phantom of the Baptist’s head.
a vivid scenario was meat and drink to Schmitt and, certainly
in the expanded orchestration, he produced a vivid, colourful
and at times very powerful score. In the notes Calum MacDonald
alludes to Schmitt’s fascination with the music of Muslim
countries. He makes this comment a propos the Psalm, and
those influences are certainly evident in that work, but
actually I hear them even more during certain passages of La
tragédie de Salomé. The opening ‘Prélude’, for instance,
is a richly atmospheric evocation of a Middle Eastern night.
One can almost see the clear, ink black sky with copious
numbers of stars twinkling. The plaintive cor anglais solo,
followed by other wind instruments, is highly suggestive
of the music of the East that fascinated Schmitt.
first danse, ‘Danse des perles’, is quite light in character,
almost innocent. Here Schmitt suggests a young girl dancing
energetically but not necessarily seductively. The Introduction
to Part II, which follows, changes the mood, introducing
a sense of foreboding. Then the female voices join in during
a lengthy section, ‘Les enchantements de la mer’. This is
exquisitely scored and though there are some loud passages
much of the music is delicate and restrained. During the
first four minutes or so I thought there were occasional
echoes of Holst – one repeated pair of wind chords sounds
uncannily like ‘Venus’ from The Planets! There are
also passages that bring to mind Debussy’s Nocturnes.
The ladies, when they start to sing, sound just like Sirens,
as Schmitt surely intended. The second dance, ‘Danse des éclairs’,
begins in a frenzy but very quickly the music becomes sinister
and frightening – this is surely when the head of the Baptist
is carried in. The final section, ‘Danse de l’effroi’, is
not a dance for Herod but a dance of panic as Salomé tries
in vain to escape. The very end of the work is uncannily
like the end of Strauss’s opera. It’s a graphic tale, illustrated
by graphic music. But it’s a work that shows, even in the
loudest climaxes, a very skilled orchestrator at work and
some of the quieter passages in particular are deeply impressive.
third work on the disc was new to me. Suite dans l’esprit
de suite is a much later work and it’s significantly
lighter in tone than the rest of the music on the programme.
I doubt many people would wish to listen to the whole disc
straight through very often but in that event the Suite is
cunningly – and necessarily – placed in the middle of the
programme where it can refresh the listener’s aural palette.
five movements are inspired by dances. ‘Majeza’ – a word
deriving from the aristocracy of eighteenth-century Madrid – makes
a light, colourful opener. This is followed by ‘Charmilles’,
which Calum MacDonald aptly describes as a “tender yet sumptuous
barcarolle”. It is very sensitively played here. Then comes ‘Pécoré de
Calabre’, a sprightly Spanish dance, followed by ‘Thrène’.
This is a Sarabande of grave beauty, which features some
very delicate wind solos. Finally ‘Bronx’ is jazz-influenced,
as the title suggests. It brings the suite to a bright and
breezy close. This suite is essentially light music but it’s
full of charm and it’s deftly scored. The playing that Thierry
Fischer secures from his orchestra matches the composer’s
CD marks a most auspicious debut on CD for the partnership
of Thierry Fischer and the BBC NOW. The orchestra’s chorus,
trained, I assume, by Adrian Partington, also contribute
significantly to the success of the enterprise, singing with
finesse where required but not shirking either before the
sometimes fearsome demands of Schmitt – the sopranos are
regularly sent up into the stratosphere towards the end of
the Psalm. Both soloists acquit themselves well. It helps
that the performances are caught in sound of demonstration
quality – the percussion are thrillingly reported – though
the huge dynamic range of the music must have set the engineers
some testing problems. Calum MacDonald’s notes are exemplary
both in terms of giving information and in conveying his
enthusiasm for the music.
MacDonald identifies two strains in French music. One is
the essentially subtle strain, as exemplified by Ravel, Fauré and
others. The contrary strain is one which, as he says, tends
towards “the monumental, the Dionysiac, the highly coloured,
the exotic and barbaric.” Schmitt, he avers, belongs in the
second camp. If you like your French music coloured primarily
in subtle pastel shades this disc probably isn’t for you.
If, however, you can take a touch of the Dionysiac in your
musical diet then you should definitely sample this excellent
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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