Schmitt is undergoing something of a renaissance on record.
Far too long delayed in my opinion. This disc from HDCD takes
us back to its earliest stirrings and to the heyday of the LP
era in the early 1970s. HDCD tell us that the transfer was made
from an EMI LP rather than their usual commercial reels. I wondered
if the results would be as good. Whether through TLC or the
mint state of the LP the results are fine if rather different
from the Decca revivals this company has been responsible for.
The disc enshrines a rather special pair of performances in
which an Old Testament fervour shakes the boughs. There’s no
doubting the passion of all involved in these lavish scores
and the committed singing in Psalm 47 is impressive indeed.
The massed singing caught with fidelity to its huge spirit by
recording producer, René Challan and engineer, Paul Vavasseur
in Paris’s Salle Wagram is gloriously warm with an analogue
halo. This is a very different effect from the intoxicating
balance and sound image secured by the Decca engineers in another
HDCD triumph – their miraculously fine revivification of reel-to-reel
tapes of Jose Sivo’s Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 on HDCD
173. It is just as satisfying to the musical soul. Do take time
to appreciate the gentle curve into silence from Andrea Guiot
about ten minutes in – why did we not hear more from her? The
Psalm communicates in intimacy from time to time but more often
there is a sort of roaring glory about it in which the choirs
address the heavens and the organ, brass and orchestra rise
to dazzlingly sunny heights worthy of a Turner canvas. It recalled
for me the surging dense-packed exultation in Delius’s A
Mass of Life. It is no wonder that this impressed the judges
enough to win the Prix de Rome on Schmitt’s fifth attempt in
1904, aged 30.
La Tragédie de Salome lisps in mystic oriental numbers.
It’s as beguilingly exotic as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Antar with
which it shares a sultry atmosphere. In fairness Schmitt does
not stud his work with a profusion of melody in the same way
as Rimsky in Antar. On the other hand there is a more
intense charge of sensuality about the Schmitt. It was premiered
in a reduced orchestral form on 9 November 1907 as a mute-drama.
Emerging in full orchestral raiment on 8 January 1911 at the
Concerts Colonnes in Paris, the real éclat came in a fully worked
out ballet in Paris on 22 April 1912 with the ballerina Natasha
Trouhanova. The extended score can be heard on Marco Polo 8.223448
with Patrick Davin conducting the Rheinland-Pfalz Philharmonic
Orchestra and the soprano Marie-Paul Fayt. The present coupling
began life as a Pathé-Marconi LP ASD 2892 which was then reissued
as an early CD transfer on EMI Classics CDC 7 49748 2. As for
comparisons: If you must have the most up to date digital sound
then go for the Hyperion
version from Thierry Fischer. For economy and a further
selection of Schmitt works try the excellent Erato
Janowski double. Do also have a look at Leslie De’Ath’s
Schmitt article. If you favour the hyper-ventilating ecstatic
approach don’t miss this HDCD version.
An copy of this disc was presented to
reviewer John Sheppard who was not aware of the identity of
the composer or works and he was asked to present a blind review.
It has been suggested that such reviews might give a better
idea of how the music sounds. We welcome your feedback on this
on the Bulletin Board.
I had expected to be given a disc with multiple versions of the same work. What a pleasure to get a disc with one version of each of two works, and to be told that they were by the same composer. I knew neither work and can only guess at the composer. The following comments are made without looking at reference books or (obviously) scores. They are simply my “blind” reactions.
Both works last about 27 minutes. The first is for chorus, large orchestra, organ and soprano solo. Thanks to being given the text with the disc it is clearly a setting in French of a Biblical text, probably a Psalm (the Bible counts as a reference book so that I have not checked this). It starts with a wonderfully jubilant setting of the words “Glory to the Lord, clap your hands together, O ye peoples”, with exciting brass effects. This builds effectively to a section featuring the organ, followed in turn by a lengthy but much more lightly scored section for soprano solo, and in due course to a return of the mood and manner of the opening. I found it riveting from start to finish, mainly on account of the glorious array of sounds the composer summons up. Parts sound like Massenet scored by Rimsky-Korsakov, other parts more like Widor or Dupré on drugs, and only a fugal passage sounded more conventionally academic. I would imagine that it was written in the early 20th
century or possibly later (1930s or 1940s) by a more staid composer, although I doubt this. Admittedly it is stronger on texture and harmony than melodic invention, but I would love to hear it live, especially in a large French Cathedral - I am assuming from the language of the performance that it is French, although its general style also suggests that.
It is suggested even more by the second work, an orchestral piece with a wordless soprano solo and choir towards the end. Here the reminiscences of Debussy and Dukas almost but not entirely replace Massenet, whilst the scoring becomes more like that of Richard Strauss. I have no idea what the “plot” of the symphonic poem is (if that is what it is), although there are many clues that suggest a sultry, hot, landscape and a generally languorous atmosphere. To be honest, I thought it less interesting and more derivative than the choral work, although I did enjoy hearing it.
It is hard to comment on performance and recording without a score or previous knowledge of the music, but both seem excellent, and at very least not to get in the way of enjoyment of the music.
In total, thanks for letting me use the “Innocent Ear” to hear two works I might otherwise never have encountered. But what are they?