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Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
Antoine et Cléopâtre, Suite No. 1, Op. 69a (1920) [23:29]
Antoine et Cléopâtre, Suite No. 2, Op. 69b (1920) [26:51]
Symphony No. 2, Op. 137 (1957) [27:35]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. 2017, Watford Colosseum, UK

I was particularly keen to hear this disc because Sakari Oramo had included the Second symphony on his programme. This is a work of which I was completely unaware until I read the Seen and Heard review by Alan Sanders describing the concert in October 2017which took place just before the sessions for this album.

The symphony was Schmitt’s last major work; he completed it less than a year before he died but he was able to attend the premiere, which was conducted by Charles Munch. The extremely valuable booklet essay by Paul Griffiths mentions that, in fact, there is no First symphony although there were two earlier works, each of which Schmitt may have regarded as his first symphony. It’s laid out in three movements. The first movement, which is colourfully scored - as is the whole work - contains quite a lot of animated music, though there are some more relaxed sections, such as a fairly brief one at around 5:30 which features an oboe solo accompanied by strings. I liked these calmer passages but I have to say that despite the signposting in Paul Griffiths’ notes I found it hard to ‘get’ the more animated episodes and to discern where everything fitted in. I think perhaps my main problem is that I don’t find the thematic material especially memorable.

The central slow movement is better in that respect. It’s founded upon a melody which we hear right at the start, voiced by the cellos and basses. For the first few pages the scoring, which is fairly rich throughout the movement, is dominated by horns and lower strings. Eventually, however, the violins begin to soar above this rich carpet of sound and they lead the music to a big but not extended climax around 5:00. Thereafter, the music falls away again into the subdued, darkly lyrical vein in which Schmitt began. I liked this movement. The finale is high spirited and contains a good deal of strongly rhythmical music. This is music of no little energy which belies the fact that the man who wrote it was aged 87. The BBCSO gives a spirited performance, yet again proving their facility in unfamiliar music.

I believe that this symphony appeared in a Marco Polo recording in the early 1990s but I’m not sure if that’s still available. It’s good that the work has now received a further recording. I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity of hearing it – and in such a zestful performance – but for me it doesn’t seem like essential listening.

This recording has already been evaluated by a couple of my colleagues and I spotted in the review by Jim Westhead that his first encounter with Florent Schmitt’s music came in the 1970s courtesy of an EMI LP of his Psalm 47 and La Tragédie de Salomé conducted by Jean Martinon, I came to this composer through the identical recording, which I enjoyed enormously. Those two scores, though very different, impressed me not least through the sheer opulence of the scoring. The same is true of the two suites from Schmitt’s incidental music to Antoine et Cléopâtre. This is music which I have heard before through the excellent Naxos recording conducted by JoAnn Falletta, which I bought on the strength of Dan Morgan’s enthusiastic review. That Falletta recording is highly impressive, both sonically and as a performance, though perhaps the Chandos sound has a slight edge. (The Naxos sound is excellent but it’s not in SACD format.)

This is incidental music on a grand scale. The orchestration throughout is opulent and highly imaginative. In Suite 1 the opening movement depicts first Anthony and then Cleopatra. It is, in Paul Griffiths’ words, a “lengthy and compendious movement”. There’s some sumptuous stuff here and the notes provide an excellent guide to what one is hearing. I found Oramo’s unveiling of these twin musical portraits very convincing. The middle movement depicts the Camp of Pompeii and, as you might expect, there’s a good deal of martial music. The BBC brass and percussion are well to the fore here and they certainly deliver the goods, helped by the punchy Chandos recording. The suite concludes with music to illustrate the sea-borne Battle of Actium at which Anthony suffered a crushing defeat. As befits a battle scene, there’s a good deal of highly animated music but it’s by no means all hell-for-leather battle music. Quite an amount od the music depicts instead the sea and the wind.

Suite 2 opens with ‘Nuit au palais de la Reine’. This is tremendously evocative at the start; Schmitt paints an aural picture of a dark, sultry Middle Eastern night. We hear a lovely plangent cor anglais solo against a highly refined accompaniment and this introduces a movement which is packed with gorgeous, sensuous music. Oramo and his orchestra are completely winning here. The middle movement is a bacchanal which Paul Griffiths points out had absolutely nothing to do with the action of Shakespeare’s play; he was obliged to insert it to satisfy the appetite of the Parisian theatre-goers of the day. There’s a lot of wild, uninhibited dance music at the start, all of which is expertly articulated here. However, at about 6:11 a change occurs. One presumes that the orgy guests are sated and the music slows markedly, segueing into a scène d’amour, most of which is slow and sensuous. The final movement concerns the deaths of first Anthony and then Cleopatra. The brooding start to the movement evolves into powerfully dramatic music which accompanies the death of Anthony. The final pages, as Cleopatra approaches her own end, are quiet but very tragic. A sudden loud chord witnesses her death and ends the suite.

The performances of these two suites are very fine indeed. Sakari Oramo obtains vivid, dramatic playing from the BBCSO. I enjoyed these two suites enormously

I listened to this disc at various times both as a conventional CD and also as a stereo SACD. In both formats the results were excellent. Engineer Ralph Couzens has captured the performances in sound that has impact and plenty of detail; the recording enables listeners to enjoy Schmitt’s rich and imaginative orchestration to the full. Paul Griffiths’ essay is ideal, especially as an introduction to less familiar music.

Despite my personal reservations about the symphony – which have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of performance – Florent Schmitt has been very well served by this release.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ Jim Westhead


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