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Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958) 
Le Petit Elfe Ferme-l’Oeil, Op. 73 [37:59]
Introït, Récit et Congé for cello and orchestra, Op. 113 [13:02]
Aline Martin (mezzo)
Henri Demarquette (cello)
Orchestre National de Lorraine/ Jacques Mercier
rec. 5-8 July 2013, Metz, Arsenal
TIMPANI 1C1212 [51:10]

The French label Timpani is renowned for throwing up surprises with its adventurous spirit in exploring less or never before trodden territory. This CD falls into the latter category with two première recordings by the French composer Florent Schmitt.
 
Le Petit Elfe Ferme-l’Oeil began life as a suite for piano duet (review), composed at the same time as Ravel was orchestrating his piano duet suite Ma Mère l'Oye. Schmitt’s 1912 suite, entitled Les Songes de Hialmar (Hjalmar’s Dreams), was inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale ‘The Dream God’. Here, the Nordic Sandman is an elf who conjures up seven dreams, one for each day of the week, for the boy Hjalmar. Years later in 1923, the composer decided to orchestrate these pieces, adding a prelude, interludes and a mezzo-soprano solo. A new ballet was born, and was premièred at the Opéra-Comique with Sonia Pavloff and Mona Paiva in the leading roles. The production was conducted by Albert Wolff. The orchestral score is lavish, opulent, richly colourful and reveals the extent to which Schmitt was a consummate orchestrator. He thus transformed a twenty minute suite into a forty minute symphonic panorama.
 
The seven dream sequences are entitled:-
La Fête nationale des souris (The Festival of the Mice)
La Cigogne lasse (The Dyspeptic Stork)
Le Cheval de Ferme-l’Oeil (The Sandman’s Horse)
Le Mariage de la poupée (The Marriage of the Doll)
Le Ronde des lettres boiteuses (The Round of the Obtuse Letters)
La Promenade à travers le tableau (The Promenade across the Picture)
Le Parapluie chinois (The Chinese Umbrella)
 
Each provides a contrast in atmosphere and colour. The mezzo-soprano Aline Martin offers a compelling account of Hjalmar’s nanny in ‘La Promenade à travers le tableau’. The score calls for a panoply of instruments including harps, contrabassoon, piano and a full range of percussion with bells, xylophone and celesta. Jacques Mercier and the Orchestre National de Lorraine deliver a sterling performance of this orchestral fresco.
 
The Introït, Récit et Congé for cello and orchestra was written for the French cellist André Navarra (1911-1988) in 1948. The cellist had taken some time out during the war and had, at the time, both resumed concertising and taken up a teaching post at the Paris Conservatoire. Schmitt was one of a number of French composers from whom Navarra commissioned works, others included Ibert, Honegger and Jolivet. Schmitt’s work, a concerto in all but name, pandered to the skill and virtuosity of its dedicatee who premiered it in 1951. Quite why it has taken more than sixty years to be recorded eludes me. It’s a 13 minute, single movement work but, in the words of the composer: "The prelude, andante and finale [are] all three linked so as not to let the performer catch his breath, although in no way would he ask to breathe – especially if he had the good fortune to be named André Navarra."
 
It opens with a scintillating whirlwind of orchestral dazzle, ushering in a plangent theme on the cello which is very much rhapsodic in character. Then the instrument plays a more angular section against a background of orchestral fireworks. This is followed by a short elegiac and wistful section which precedes a coda, ending the piece with wit, verve and panache. The cello has centre-stage throughout and what better advocate for this delightful music than the French cellist Henri Demarquette who plays with such fervour, insight and technical command.
 
Like all of this label’s CDs that I have heard, the recording quality is impressive, with a natural, spacious and warm acoustic captured. The orchestral playing is sumptuous and polished, allowing all detail to be picked out. In the Introït, Récit et Congé, the cello is ideally placed and a good balance between the soloist and players has been achieved. The liner-notes are superbly annotated in French and English. Hats off to Timpani, they’ve done it again.
 
Stephen Greenbank