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Florent SCHMITT ( 1870-1958)
La Tragédie de Salomé Op.50 (1907) [25:29]
Le Palais hanté Op.49 (1903) [13:36]
Psaume XLVII Op.38 (1904) [28:44]
Susan Bullock (soprano)
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and Choir/Yan Pascal Tortelier
rec. Sala São Paulo, Julio Prestes Cultural Center, São Paulo, Brazil, 5-9 July 2010
CHANDOS CHSA5090 [68:10]

Experience Classicsonline

This is a disc to welcome in every respect. Yan Pascal Tortelier was a stalwart of the Chandos catalogue not so many years back so it is a pleasure to welcome him back into ‘active service’ particularly when at the helm of the orchestra with which he has recently started as principal conductor, The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. This ensemble have proved to be an absolute revelation in recent years with a series of sensational discs - mainly on the BIS label - of primarily Latin-American repertoire. It is a particular delight to hear all the good opinions of them formed there carried over into unfamiliar repertoire. Chandos have matched BIS on the sonics front producing a disc of excellent range, detail and sonic impact – elements all vital in conveying the richness and power of these three hedonistically romantic scores.

Composer Florent Schmitt seems doomed to the periphery of the popular Classical Music repertoire certainly outside his native France. The issue, as it is with so many similar composers, is one of achieving a kind of critical mass of familiarity which allows him to become recognisably his own man as opposed to being simply an amalgam of influences. Curiously, this disc both serves and hinders that cause. As a first port of call for the collector new to his music this is pretty much ideal bringing together as it does his three most famous (relatively) scores in solidly fine performances. If Chandos are going to do for Schmitt what they are currently doing for Halvorsen or D’Indy it is vital that this represents simply volume 1 in a developing series. None of the works presented here are new to the catalogue so converts to the Schmitt cause will have to decide whether duplication of repertoire is affordable.

La Tragédie de Salomé turned up on a blind listening disc a year or so back and is a perfect embodiment of that peculiarly Gallic obsession with what might be termed ‘erotic exotica’. Schmitt wrote an hour long ballet score in 1907 scored for chamber orchestra. Subsequently he extracted a suite of about half the score scored for a much larger orchestra and that is what is presented here. The sequence of the music in the suite follows the broad arc of the drama from a quiet yet sensuous dawn through ever more obsessive and charged dances to the climactic tragedy as Salome and the palace are overwhelmed by a storm. It is graphically seductive stuff and impossible not to respond to if you have any taste for cinematic excess in music. Likewise it is meat and drink to a virtuoso orchestra and a recording company with a reputation for demonstration quality recordings. Throughout the entire disc the playing of the orchestra is simply first rate. The strings are a model of sensuous sonority, the woodwind full of character and the brass perfectly blended; brazen or full-voiced as the music requires. Additionally, the trumpets just give their tone a little edge of vibrato which is ideal in this repertoire. Chandos have produced this as a SA-CD. Unfortunately I do not have the facilities to listen to it in this format but even the ‘standard’ CD is pretty sensational. The liner notes by Roger Nichols are good and include a useful synopsis for the ballet suite. The information about the individual works is good but I do think it would have benefited from a more extended biographical note and one that placed these works in context both as part of the composer’s oeuvre and more importantly their significance in the greater scheme of French music of the period.

The second work on the disc reflect another French fin-de-siecle obsession; namely the works of Edgar Alan Poe. Here Schmitt writes a compact thirteen minute tone-poem called Le Palais hanté based on the story The Fall of the House of Usher. In recording terms this is the rarest item offered. I can think of only one other recording – on French EMI with the Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra coupled with Caplet and Debussy. My cassette copy languishes unloved and unlistened to somewhere in the attic so I have not been able to make a direct comparison but memory tells me it had nothing of the colour or fluency of the current version. In a not wholly relevant but interesting diversion it is interesting to see how that other great Poe-acolyte Josef Holbrooke treated similarly nightmarish narratives at almost exactly the same time (1903/4) – I have to say I prefer Schmitt who manages to reign in the temptation to go fully over the top. The problem that Schmitt does have in this work is that it is far stronger on atmosphere and orchestration than melodic memorability. It is certainly worth hearing but is not the work to convince one that Schmitt is a great composer.

More convincing on that front is the final work which seems to tap yet another abiding French fascination – this time with what I might term the ‘militant psalm’. The orchestra is joined by their own – very fine – choir and soprano soloist Susan Bullock. The immediate impression of the singing is of great discipline and care over the balancing of the voices. The men’s voices are strong and extremely well focused whilst the sopranos have no apparent difficulties at all with Schmitt’s high-lying tessitura. The chorus to orchestra balance is very good with soloist Bullock set believably in front. For my personal taste I find her voice a fraction too fruity for this type of music. The booklet provides full texts in the original French as well as English and German translations but the choir sing with such excellent diction that it is easy to follow the text by ear alone.

After all of the superlatives above it might seem strange not to give the disc an unqualified recommendation which indeed I probably would have done right up to the point I made a comparison with another version in my collection. This is the 1990 Erato recording from Marek Janowski and the Choir and Orchestra of Radio France. The two main works are here but by omitting Le Palais hanté it makes for a disc of relatively short measure. Add to that that the current disc is better played and engineered and you will wonder why I hesitate. It is simply because somehow when making the direct comparison the new disc has a fraction of controlled calculation the older disc doesn’t. In its rather wild and woolly way the ecstasy – be it of a lascivious Salome or of a religious fervour comes across better. For example, in the psalm setting Schmitt repeats the lines “frappez les mains”. The French chorus, strained by the tessitura and not nearly as tight an ensemble do sound as though they are caught up in some revelatory moment. The São Paulo chorus in contrast sound a tad too drilled - perhaps worth noting too Janowski is a good two minutes quicker than Tortelier overall which does convert into extra urgency of expression. Likewise in the ballet suite, the final conflagration and destruction of the palace strains the French players and engineering but in doing so the mental picture they create is excitingly vivid, conversely the Brazilian players are able to take it all in their stride – objective reportage rather than breathless eye-witness. But this is really a matter of tiny degree and no-one buying this new disc would be anything but thrilled particularly if you have a sound-system up to the task. One last thought – again in direct comparison I think Janowski is slightly more skilful at handling the transitions between sections in both main works. This is less of an issue in the suite which are linked dances but in the Psalm his more fluent approach allows the work to flow as an organic whole. And just to add to your purchasing conundrum – the Janowski Erato disc has been re-released on the Warner Apex label at a tempting bargain price of under £5.00 as opposed to the Chandos full price. Well nobody ever said collecting was straightforward!

I’m none the wiser as to whether Schmitt is a great composer or not – my listening notes are dotted with references to other works but then I realized that often the Schmitt pre-dates them so in effect he was very much a composer of his time. The fact that he rarely seems to get to a “volume 2” is emphasized by the fact that there is a recent (2007) Hyperion disc I have not heard which again duplicates the two main works as well as HDTT’s revival of the classic EMI Martinon recordings. These are also relatively early pieces – Schmitt lived through to 1958 so I do hope that this same team return to his later catalogue. In any event, this is as auspicious and impressive a debut for this new performing team as I hoped it would be – any new disc will be eagerly awaited.

Nick Barnard

See also reviews by Brian Wilson and Dan Morgan (Download Roundup)









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