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Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
Antoine et Cléopatre: six symphonic episodes, Op.69a/b (1920) [46.10]
La palais hanté, Op.49 (1904) [13.33]
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York, 5 and 9 March 2015
NAXOS 8.573521 [59.43]

It is usually a fairly straightforward matter, when considering composers of the second rank, to identify a style which can serve to categorise their music but this is extremely difficult to do in the case of Florent Schmitt, a student of Massenet and Fauré and a friend of Ravel and Satie. In the first place, during the course of a very long life, his compositions inevitably evolved in idiom, until his Second Symphony, written at the age of eighty-one, which falls (somewhat belatedly) into the sphere of Roussel or neo-classicism. In the second place, his eclectic style contains reminiscences and anticipations of the music of composers as wide-ranging as Debussy at one extreme and Stravinsky at the other. Lastly, his formidable orchestral technique and often intricate writing evokes the world of Richard Strauss and Respighi in a manner that is unusual in the more commonly refined sound-world of French music at the period. That is however not to say that his music is imitative; indeed, there is a freshness and imagination in his scores which alternately charms and titillates the ear.

Comparisons with Strauss and Respighi are perhaps the most germane in the incidental music that Schmitt wrote for a 1920 production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra given at the Paris Opéra with danced interludes by Ida Rubinstein (fresh from her triumphs in Debussy’s Martyre de Saint-Sébastien). In the suites which Schmitt extracted from the complete score it is clear that we are not given the various pieces in the order in which they would have appeared on the stage; instead the movements are grouped into a more symphonically cogent order which is most satisfactory in its own right. The sequence covering the Battle of Actium which concludes the first suite (track 3) was clearly designed to provide links between the successive multitude of short scenes in the Shakespeare play (almost anticipating the style of film cues as it switches from one part of the field to another), with passages intended to accompanying the fleeting flashes of spoken dialogue linked into a unified whole. The short series of fanfares describing the camp of Sextus Pompeius are less satisfactory when heard in isolation; but in the scenes depicting the court of Cleopatra Schmitt really comes into his own, with some thrilling dance music which has all the semi-oriental flavour of Strauss’s Dance of the Seven Veils intermixed with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Schmitt had already partially anticipated the latter work in his ballet score La tragédie du Salomé, probably his best-known work; here he gives us a richer concoction out of the same barrel, anticipating in many ways the blatancy of Respighi’s Roman Festivals or Belkis. Fastidious souls may find the mixture over-rich; others will revel in the orgiastic textures that result.

After the rich luxury of the Antony score, the tone-poem The haunted palace based on Edgar Allen Poe might seem rather tame. But taken in isolation this too is a work of the high romantic movement, more impressionist in tone but still packing quite a punch. The listener should bear in mind that the work was based not on Poe’s original English with its heady brew of “encrimson’d windows” and “a lute’s well-tuned law” but on the French translation by Mallarmé which further enhanced Poe’s imagery into a positive riot of symbolism. The booklet notes by Edward Yadzinski (given also in French translation) discuss the differences between the sensibilities of Poe and Mallarmé amusingly.

The only point at which the music of Schmitt fails to match that of Strauss and Respighi is the sheer lack of memorable themes. Whereas both the German and the Italian nearly always manage to clothe their glittering soundscapes with melodies that stick obstinately in the brain, Schmitt never quite seems to bring off the killer punch. The initial impression is striking, but the results lack the emotional depth to fix that impression in the psyche of the listener. This surely is the only reason why his music, always immediately communicative, has failed to establish a place in the repertoire. That should not however discourage listeners who wish to experience some really expert romantic writing from further investigation. JoAnn Falletta obviously believes in the music, extracting every last ounce of colour and passion from these scores, and securing excellent playing from the Buffalo orchestra.

Neither of the works on this CD are new to the catalogue. The haunted palace first appeared on a disc of French music inspired by Edgar Allen Poe and conducted by Georges Prêtre which had a somewhat patchily available release in the UK. It was first released on LP, then on a fully documented EMI CD (review) which never achieved wide circulation, and more recently on a mid-price reissue with dismally inadequate notes. Nor was it given a very thrilling performance, with an orchestra only just adequate to the intricate writing and a recording quality that nowadays sounds rather thin. Antony and Cleopatra did not make an appearance in the catalogues until 2008, when a very good rendition was given by the Lorraine National Orchestra under Jacques Mercier (Timpani 1C1133) and enterprisingly coupled with an orchestral version of Schmitt’s two piano Mirages. That had a very rich recording which obscured some of the detail of the score, and the sound here is clearer; while the playing from Buffalo is fully the equal of that on the earlier release. The coupling on this disc is unique to the catalogues, and since the performances are second to none the CD is self-recommending to those who are unfamiliar with the work of a composer who does not deserve the relative neglect to which he has been consigned. They will thoroughly enjoy themselves, as I did.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)



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