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Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
Antoine et Cléopâtre, Suite No. 1, Op. 69a (1920) [23:29]
1. Antoine et Cléopâtre [12:40]
2. Le Camp de Pompée [4:20]
3. La Bataille d’Actium [6:29]
Antoine et Cléopâtre, Suite No. 2, Op. 69b (1920) [26:51]
1. Nuit au palais de la Reine [7:52]
2. Orgie et danses [11:01]
3. Le tombeau de Cléopâtre [7:58]
Symphony No. 2, Op. 137 (1957) [27:35]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. 2017, Watford Colosseum, UK
Reviewed as a stereo 24/96 download from
Pdf booklet included

There were two Chandos releases among my top picks for 2017: a lovely set of ballet suites by Kara Karayev, with Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony, and Flux, the debut album of the terrifically talented Ferio Saxophone Quartet. Apart from being musically adventurous, both collections are very well played, and, following a spate of overblown offerings, they sound pretty good to boot. Kudos to Ralph Couzens and his team for whisking Sakari Oramo and the BBCSO into the studio so soon after their performance of Florent Schmitt’s rarely heard Second Symphony at the Barbican last October.

I missed that concert, which included Franck’s Symphonic Variations and Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, both with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, and the Sibelius Third. Fortunately, a friend captured the broadcast and sent me a copy soon afterwards. The Schmitt was new to me, but as I’ve come to know and admire several of the composer’s other pieces, this was a mandatory listen. As for Oramo, the orchestra’s chief conductor, he’s generally worth hearing. Indeed, after a muted start his Nielsen symphonies from Stockholm morphed into something quite marvellous (BIS). That said, I was very disappointed by his recent recording of Rachmaninov concertos, with Yevgeny Sudbin and the BBCSO (also on BIS).

The first Schmitt work I heard, via the cover-mounted CD on a hi-fi magazine in the early 1990s, was the mighty Psaume 47. Many years later, I discovered La Tragédie de Salomé – it’s part of a two-disc Erato set recommended by Rob Barnett – and I’ve since reviewed the third and fourth volumes of Schmitt’s output for two pianos four hands. That was followed by an album containing the Antoine et Cléopâtre suites, with JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Phil. (Naxos). In that review I mentioned, en passant, Jacques Mercier’s Orchestre National de Lorraine recording of this music, which I’ve got to know in recent weeks (Timpani). The 16-bit download of that is just £9.75 from Presto.

Antoine et Cléopâtre, subtitled ‘Six épisodes symphoniques en deux suites d’après le drame de Shakespeare’, was intended as ballet music for a new production of the play at the Paris Opéra in 1920. Oramo brings a filmic sweep to the opening scene of the first suite, in which we’re introduced to the two protagonists; not only that, the Watford recording has a pleasing airiness that would be all but impossible to achieve at the Barbican. Also, the playing is more polished, and, not surprisingly, there’s lots more detail and colour here than on that lossy stream. Now the heraldic brass at the start of Le Camp de Pompée really is thrilling – commendably crisp timps, too – and the battle scene fair bristles with energy and excitement.

Alluding to the cinematic qualities of this music is not a back-handed compliment; in fact, I’d say it’s good enough to stand next to classic ‘swords ‘n’ sandals’ scores from the likes of Franz Waxman, which, as one would expect, display plenty of dramatic strength. Indeed, that underlying tension, subtly built and carefully sustained, is what makes Oramo’s Antoine et Cléopâtre so striking. Some critics have suggested there are Germanic elements to Schmitt’s writing, but, if so, I don’t detect them here. No, this score is quintessentially French, rhythmically astute, tastefully shaded and always judicious in its use of orchestral resources.

The second suite is no less assured, the air of Nuit au palais de la Reine perfumed, yet not cloying. Oramo really lets the music breathe in a most natural and intuitive way, its soft, subcutaneous pulse never allowed to flutter or fade. Even at his most unbuttoned – in Orgie et danses, for instance – Schmitt retains a surprising degree of refinement, the bass drum satisfyingly present. Once again, Oramo is deft in his delivery, the clear, well-focused playing and sound a double boon in this economical, finely nuanced score. As for Le tombeau de Cléopâtre, the BBCSO darkly eloquent, it makes for an ear-pricking finale.

So, how does Oramo stack up against the competition? Mercier, recorded in 2007, is robust and colourful; not only that, there’s an added bounce to the rhythms of Antoine et Cléopâtre and Nuit au palais de la Reine, while the brazen, thoroughly Gallic fanfares in Le Camp de Pompée would strip paint at thirty paces. Trouble is, this big-screen boldness, amplified by very full, upfront sound, does make Oramo’s performance seems a little tame at times. Ditto Falletta’s, which, despite its lovely blend, now feels too reticent to warrant such a strong recommendation. No, of all three versions it’s Mercier’s that truly stirs and startles, as it reveals a far more vigorous and acerbic musical talent than its rivals do.

Schmitt’s Op. 137 is the third of three ‘symphonic’ works: the others are the Symphonie Concertante for Piano and Orchestra, composed in 1931, and the ‘Janiana’ Symphony for Strings, which dates from 1941. Indeed, there’s some debate as to which of those is, in effect, the composer’s First Symphony. There are hardly any recordings of either, and, as far as I know, just one of Op. 137. The latter, with Leif Segerstam and the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, was recorded for Marco Polo in 1992 and reissued by SWRmusic in 2014. Listening to clips of the latter, my overriding impression is of a strong, sinewy performance, the conductor at his clean and clear-eyed best.

I must confess I was slightly disappointed by Oramo’s Barbican account of the piece, not least because the off-air recording obscures the finer details of Schmitt’s highly engaging sound world. Happily, Chandos’s warm but analytical recording brings out all those elements. I sense Debussy, Ravel and D’Indy in there somewhere, with a certain alacrity – a verve, if you like – which puts me in mind of Ibert, too. That said, Schmitt is very much his own man, his clear, concise narrative pithily punctuated.

The introspective central section – Lent sans excès – finds the BBC strings and woodwinds on good form, Oramo unpacking, shaping and propelling the music with disarming ease. Tuttis are always proportionate – what a difference a sensibly balanced recording makes – and none of the movement’s delicacy is lost. The animated – even jaunty – finale is nicely scaled, too; even those recurring rabbit-punches on the bass drum are executed with a crisp and very apt sense of style. Great music? No, perhaps not. Still, all credit to Oramo for programming the piece and to Chandos for recording it. Paul Griffiths’ comprehensive liner-notes are a bonus.

Comparative reviews, which I find most enjoyable, do have a downside. In this case, it’s Falletta’s Antoine et Cléopâtre, which, discounting the enthusiasm generated by a new discovery, just can’t compete in such compelling company. Then again, that’s the nature of the beast, collectors constantly reappraising/discarding old favourites and replacing them with new ones. Although very different, Oramo and Mercier are both splendid in the suites, making them joint leaders in that field. And while this Chandos recording of the Second Symphony is a valuable addition to the Schmitt discography, I do wonder what Mercier would make of it. Any chance, Timpani?

Rewarding music, well played and recorded; some competition in the suites, though.

Dan Morgan



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