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Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
Orchestral Suite No.1 from Antoine et Cléopâtre, Op.69a [23:29]
Orchestral Suite No.2 from Antoine et Cléopâtre, Op.69b [26:51]
Symphony No.2, Op.137 [27:35]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. Watford Colosseum, UK, 2017

This is a Super Audio CD, playable on ordinary CD players in Stereo and on SACD players in either Stereo or, if suitably equipped, multi-channel mode. I listened to it in stereo via an SACD player.

The recording can only be described as sumptuous, with this intricately scored music revealed in great detail without any hint of dryness in the acoustic. Not for nothing are Chandos renowned for their recording skills, and under the baton of their Chief Conductor, the orchestra play with the virtuosity necessary for the listener to be able to luxuriate in Schmitt’s orchestration.

I first came across Schmitt’s music way back in the 1970’s, through an EMI LP of his Psalm 47 and La Tragédie de Salomé conducted by Jean Martinon, and was instantly hooked by the exotic sounds that the composer was able to conjure. Since then I have acquired several more recordings of his works, including the Naxos CD of the Antoine et Cléopâtre suites, enthusiastically reviewed here, and the Marco Polo recording of his Second Symphony.

Schmitt’s compositional style, as exemplified in the two suites can probably best be described as hyper-late-romantic, and you can name almost any late 19th or early 20th century composer working in that style to evoke parts of his sound world. Not so melodic as Ravel’s Daphnis, not so barbaric as Stavinsky’s Rite, not so filmic as Resphigi’s Pines, and often quite near to Strauss’ Die Frau. If this sounds negative, it is not intended to be so.

For comparison purposes, I listened once again to the Naxos recording of the suites, where JoAnn Falletta persuades the Buffalo Philharmonic to give a virtuoso reading. I was surprised by the recording quality - much better than Naxos usually achieve with American regional orchestras, and the quality of the orchestral playing led me briefly to look up the orchestra’s history. It was founded as long ago as 1934 and is, in fact, New York based.

The reading is swifter than Oramo’s, which yields benefits in the battle scenes and parts of the orgy, but doesn’t achieve the luxuriant silken textures so evident in Oramo’s performance of the first part of the second suite, ‘Nuit au palais’. Nor is the recording, though excellent, quite up to the super sophistication of the Chandos, which has more air around the orchestra and achieves a wonderful instrumental blend.

To be frank, I would be hard pressed to choose between them if I were to be restricted to just one recording, although if I had five-channel playback facilities, the Chandos would probably be an out-and-out winner. As it is, the Naxos easily wins on price, but the coupling of the rarely recorded 27-minute symphony might well swing it for Chandos, because Naxos have the relatively better known ‘Le Palais Hanté’.

The symphony is a very late work, finished in 1957, and Schmitt just lived to hear its first performance in June 1958. The 1988 Marco Polo recording by the Rheinland-Pfalz Philharmonic under Leif Segerstam is easily outclassed by Oramo, both in terms of recording and orchestral playing, although the BBC performance is once again slower than its rival, this time by 3½ minutes in a 27½ minute work. I find it to be a peculiar piece, with a first movement that consists of segments of quick music that almost bounce along, only to be interrupted by slower, smoother sections that fail to meld. The opening section rather put me in mind of a cartoon detective character, secretively hopping from one room to another, pausing and then hopping again. Segerstam, at a slightly faster tempo characterises this more vividly than Oramo, but whether the composer wanted listeners to think of a cartoon detective is open to debate. Even the slower sections are rhythmically unsettled, and I must admit to not really taking to it. The second, slow movement consists of a continuously evolving melody, rising to a central climax and then falling back, only to rise and fall again in a more condensed manner. Its melodic material is not particularly striking. The finale is in danger of being amusing as its impish melodic fragments bounce around, xylophone to the fore. Like the first movement, slower sections interject and the piece becomes almost a dialogue of tempos and melodic fragments that reappear and vanish without warning, all of which stop it gaining a decisive momentum. I shouldn’t think that I will return to this symphony very often, though it is good to have such a superb recording of it on a major label.

Jim Westhead
Previous review: Dan Morgan


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