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Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
Piano Quintet, Op. 51 (1902-08) [58:26]
À tour d’anches for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano Op. 97 (1939-43) [15:21]
Birgitta Wollenweber (piano)
Solisten-Ensemble Berlin (Matthias Wollong (violin I); Petra Schwieger (violin II); Ulrich Knörzer (viola); Andreas Grünkorn (cello); Matthias Bäcker (oboe); Richard Obermayer (clarinet); Frank Forst (bassoon)
rec. 2008, Villa Siemens, Berlin, Germany
NAXOS 8.570489 [74:03]

Piano Music
Ombres, Op. 64 (1912-17) [29:05]
Mirages, Op. 70 (1920-21) [15:34]
La Tragédie de Salomé, Op. 50 bis (1912-13) [32:06]
Vincent Larderet (piano)
rec. 2009, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, UK
NAXOS 8.572194 [76:45]
Works for Violin and Piano
Quatre Pièces Op. 25 (1901) [13:15]
Scherzo vif, Op. 59, No. 2 (1913) [5:36]
Chant du soir, Op. 7 (1895) 4:38
Habeyssé – suite for violin and piano, Op. 110 (1947) [12:05]
Sonate libre en deux parties enchaînées (ad modum clementis aquae), Op. 68 (1919) [29:54]
Beata Halska (violin)
Claudio Chaiquin (piano)
rec. 2014, Studio de Meudon, Meudon, France
NAXOS 8.573169 [65:43]

JoAnn Falletta and Naxos can be relied on for some spectacularly seasoned anthologies from composers who lived in the early part of the last century. The vividly imaginative music of French composer Florent Schmitt is no exception (review review) and this was issued in 2015, It was followed by Chandos’s Oramo collection which had the Antoine et Cléopâtre suites and the Second Symphony as its own pillars of strength (review review review review). This in turn followed Chandos’s and Tortelier's Psaume 47, Palais Hanté and Tragédie de Salomé (review). The success of Naxos’s Schmitt-Falletta disc made me wonder about the label's earlier efforts in Schmit’'s direction. Here they are; all three discs. One of them (Larderet’s piano recital) has already been reviewed here but the other two slipped our collective attention.

Florent Schmitt came of a musical family and studied with Gédalge, Fauré, Massenet and Dubois. His accomplishments saw him winning the Prix de Rome in 1900 with the cantata far from inconsiderable cantata Sémiramis. Active as a music academic he was also, like Atterburg in Sweden, a tough and unforgiving music critic who took no prisoners and left no wounded on the battlefield. This apart, he travelled extensively. He was a close friend of Vaughan Williams and, as it turned out, the two composers died in the same year. Aside from not writing an opera Schmitt was active in every other genre (Timpani) including the French wind band. He co-founded the Société de Musique Indépendante with Ravel, Koechlin, Fauré, Roger-Ducasse, Aubert and Huré. He also contributed a concluding Kermesse-Valse to L'eventail de jeanne (Chandos CHAN10290 and Naxos 8.573354). The list of other contributors (Ravel (Fanfare); Ferroud (Marche); Ibert (Valse); Roland-Manuel (Canarie); Delannoy (Bourrée); Roussel (Sarabande); Milhaud (Polka); Poulenc (Pastourelle); Auric (Rondeau)) reads like an almanac of the great and the good in French music.

Schmitt’s hour-long Piano Quintet is the main ‘act’ on the first disc. It bears a dedication to Fauré and is broadly contemporaneous with La tragédie de Salomé. Such was its success that in 1935 the composer recorded the central Lento and this can still be heard on Warner-EMI’s The Composer in Person. The only other modern current competition comes from Timpani although we should recall that the work was once to be had on Accord 465 810-2 or ACD 220982 from the Quatuor de Berne and Werner Bärtschi.

Birgitta Wollenweber and the Solisten-Ensemble Berlin give a performance of unshakeable concentration making the many mood transitions in this mercurial hour-long work utterly convincing. The only thing is that the string quartet seems marginally distanced as against the piano although this works extremely well in the delicate hypnosis of the tranced central Lento. The finale is an alternately brooding and resolute Animé which ends in swirling drama. The Timpani version has it by a short length but in only a small recording choice sense is the Naxos at a disadvantage.
Beside the Quintet, the À tour d’anches at 15 minutes and four cheeky and shriekingly Stravinskian movements seems concise. What it lacks in epic reach and Iliad-like scale it compensates for in moodiness and metropolitan flair. It is laid out for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano and was written during the Nazi Occupation. The last movement is entitled Quasimodo. This pawky dissolute work has been heard before, though not in such splendid sound as is mustered by Naxos. It can be heard there, with various other chamber pieces, in a recording on Praga Digital.

The piano music disc comes up with two half hour three movement suites. Ombres and the composer’s own solo piano version of La Tragédie de Salomé. Ombres (or Shadows) comprises a complex key-shattering tornado first movement: J’entends dans le lointain … (I hear in the distance …). This lets up at some points for tremblingly fragile episodes. This movement dates from September 1917, as the First World War raged. At times it attains a Sorabji-like, pearly-veiled complexity, which would be a challenge to any pianist both technically and interpretatively. Mauresque from 1912 is a deliquescent essay and the last item, Cette ombre, mon image, composed in 1916, was written around poetry by Walt Whitman – a writer much admired by American and British composers including Schmitt’s friend Vaughan Williams. The music it drew from Schmitt is quite oneiric. Like so much in the Schmitt catalogue what we hear sounds utterly fluent for the piano.

Mirages, the latest work on the piano disc, consists of two pieces. The first of these is the very oblique and subtle, Et Pan, au fond des blés lunaires, s’accouda (And Pan, deep amid the moonlit wheat, cupped his chin in his hands), It was written in 1920 and is dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy. This was Schmitt's contribution to a season of Debussy tributes in La Revue Musicale. The others were from Dukas, Roussel, Malipiero, Goossens, Bartók, Stravinsky, Ravel, Falla and Satie. The second piece was dedicated to Cortot with the title La Tragique Chevauchée (The Tragic Gallop). This Bartókian (Allegro barbaro) piece was written in July 1921 and admits a gentle muse from time to time amid a martellato angularity with which the piece ends. The whole piece is marked ‘Emporté et violent’. The gallop in question relates to the Mazeppa legend. The orchestral version of Mirages can be found on Timpani. Unsurprisingly John Ogdon recorded Mirages. His version can be heard, if you can find it, on EMI-Matrix 21. It’s probably more accessible in the Ogdon Icon box (50999 7 04637 2 9) - CD11 of 17 CDs.

La Tragédie de Salomé had its origins in an exotic ballet in seven scenes and an hour’s duration. This score, for reduced orchestral forces, was recorded on Marco Polo 8.223448 conducted by Leif Segerstam. A second version is of half an hour’s duration, but this time for very full orchestra. It was premiered by Pierné in 1911. It’s this version by which many interested listeners are likely to know Schmitt. He knew the piano as exponent and made the piano reduction which Larderet plays here. The detail and contours will be familiar to those who recall the orchestral version from various recordings including the one by Martinon (EMI, 1973) but there are other recordings including Tortelier, Fischer, Goetzel, Janowski and in 1930 from Schmitt himself (review).

The piano version is in three sections and certainly the first two, in their swooning and exotic subtlety, suggest that Schmitt wrote under an influence similar to that which gripped Rimsky-Korsakov in his Antar Symphony. The finale is 17 minutes of writing of the most strenuously arduous upheaval – a volatile mélange of Sorabji or Stevenson and La Tragique Chevauchée. One can imagine this also appealing to John Ogdon. There is a version for two pianos which has been recorded by Dutton but was not included in Grand Piano’s 4 volume set. Larderet, who has a reputation for his Ravel, has said of Salome that it is “one of the most difficult piano works I have ever performed — on par with Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit”. The latter was said to have been in the mix when Schmitt wrote his Ombres. The disc’s notes remind us that Stravinsky, the score’s dedicatee, wrote to Schmitt in 1912 saying of Salomé “Dear God it’s beautiful! It’s one of the greatest masterpieces in modern music”.

The last disc is of Schmitt’s works for violin and piano and is played by musicians who hail from Poland and Argentina: Beata Halska and Claudio Chaiquin. There is an interview on the Florent Schmitt website with the artists about this recording. As far as I can see it is unique in its coverage; the single exception being the Sonate libre en deux parties enchaînées which was recorded in the late 1990s by Régis Pasquier and Huseyin Sermet (who also recorded Schmitt’s Symphonie Concertante) on Auvidis-Valois V 4679. Before that the Sonata was on Genuin GEN14132 by Ilona Then-Bergh and Michael Schäfer (piano) and on Accord 461 759-2 by Jean Fournier and Ginette Doyen.

From 1901 we hear four short pieces for violin and piano, a grouping dedicated to the composer, Maurice Caplet (1878-1925, review review review). The first, Lied, is an endearingly affectionate and singing tribute to the German art-song. Nocturne lulls and dreams away while Sérénade is more insistently and cheekily lively than you might have expected from the title. The last piece, Barcarolle, inhabits the same region as the Lullaby. Scherzo vif, from 1913, carries a dedication to Firmin Touche (1875–1957), concertmaster of the Orchestre Colonne. It is an elfin, showy display piece. Chant du soir for violin (or cor anglais) and piano was written in 1895. Its steady-pulsed orientalism and silky emotions make it a natural companion to the Nocturne and Lullaby. Habeyssée is from 1947 and can also be heard in a version for violin and orchestra on a 1988 Marco Polo (8.223689) played by Hannele Segerstam. Its vaguely oriental allusions are married to a three movement construct with each movement bearing a letter of the alphabet: A, B, C – apply that to the title of the piece. The outer movements, which bear the words animé, are lively and fairly dry while the middle movement Un peu attardé is chilly, episodic and expressively oblique.
The full title of the longest piece in this collection is the Sonate libre en deux parties enchaînées (ad modum clementis aquae) Op 68 in two movements. It bears a dedication to Hélène Jourdan-Morhange (1888–1961) who was a violinist especially favoured by Ravel. Written between 1918 and 1920 at Schmitt’s holiday home at Artiguemy, in the Hautes-Pyrénées, it was premiered in 1920 by Hélène Léon and Lucien Bellanger under the auspices of the Société Musicale Indépendante.
The first movement is a Lent sans exagération and seems, at first, to be finding its way. Its steps are hesitant as if the music is uncertain of the way. Gradually it develops a lyrical confidence but often it assumes eldritch and musing ways that suggest the supernatural. The first movement ends with some utterly bewitching writing for the two instruments seeming to move between slowly windblown veils. The second movement, Animé, at 18 minutes, is two-thirds the length of the whole work. Naxos’s notes refer to the movement’s “Mephistophelian character, full of rhythmic vitality, drive and motoric energy”. This description is spot-on. I have not recently heard the Pasquier/Sermet version but, from what I can recall, there is little to choose between that one (which you may anyway have trouble tracking down) and this. In any event the Naxos version of the Sonata seems fluent and totally accomplished and is buttressed by a valuable 35 minutes of other Schmitt for violin and piano.

These three Naxos discs are well suited to anyone wanting to explore Schmitt, the composer of chamber music.

Rob Barnett

Previous review (piano): James Zychowicz



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