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Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
Orchestral Suite No. 1 from Antoine et Cléopâtre (1920) [23.29]
Orchestral Suite No. 2 from Antoine et Cléopâtre (1920) [26.51]
Symphony No. 2 (1956-57) [27.35]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. 2017, Watford Colosseum, UK

Ida Rubinstein “whose sheer cold beauty gained an extra lustre from [her] vast wealth… and who was ready to display both – the looks and the lucre - … was responsible for some of the stranger works of Debussy (Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien), Stravinsky (Perséphone) and Honegger (Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher)”. [I quote from Paul Griffiths colourful album notes.]

Ida Rubinstein took over the Paris Opéra in June 1920 to stage Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. She played Cleopatra, of course, opposite Édouard De Max in a new translation by André Guide. Apparently the production seems to have been a tad lame because, according to one critic, the two stars were inaudible - but not so an onstage white peacock.

Oh, and, of course, the music was by Florent Schmitt who subsequently arranged his work into two orchestral suites.

Suite No.1 commences with almost thirteen minutes of introductory music setting the scene as Anthony allies with Cleopatra. His music is strongly assertive rising in dotted rhythms on the horns yet there is also a sense of doom and foreboding. A hint of sea music is apparent; baleful as the material alludes to the defeat at Actium. Cleopatra is cast against exotic dance material: sinuous and sensual. The middle movement concentrates on the scene at Pompey’s camp and is blisteringly martial as war is imminent. A fanfare leads into thrusting material for brass and percussion. The finale covers the sea battle of Actium with the music suggesting billowing winds swelling sails to engage in naval warfare. There is also an interlude of languorous love music. Griffiths suggests there are influences of Richard Strauss and early Schoenberg (Gurrelieder).

Suite No. 2 begins with a sultry night scene with muted violins and elusive cymbals and twinkling celesta. The drama is unfolding in Alexandria after Actium and Cleopatra is contemplating negotiations with Octavius but Antony is decidedly not. The movement ends with a return to the love music from the last movement of the first suite. The middle movement interrupts the drama to present a ballet – here propulsive rhythmic, driven music for an orgy, mounting to an ecstatic climax. The closing movement returns to the drama and to the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra. The atmosphere is dark and sombre, the music descending into gloom only retrieved by reminiscences of Antony’s strengths and the love music returns as Cleopatra recalls their passion as she clasps the asp.

All this sexy, heady stuff is relished by Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra who perform with great verve and vivacity.

Schmitt’s Second Symphony appears to have been something of a misnomer. It is unclear why Schmitt called it No. 2. Griffiths puts it down to an old man’s foible. (Schmitt was able to attend its premiere, conducted by Charles Munch, in June 1958; but the composer died two months later.) There had been no official Symphony No. 1 – the only possibilities being the Symphonie concertante for piano and orchestra and Juliana, a symphony for strings that he wrote for an all-female orchestra.

Whatever, the work is quite outgoing and there is a sidelong glance at Poulenc, Schmitt aping that composer’s insouciance but he does not have Poulenc’s devil-may-care sense of fun. The opening movement has interesting and sometimes arresting material with splashes of jazz. The central movement begins darkly in subterranean regions but the music soon rises above the gloom into golden introspection and heartfelt lyricism, the music unfolding gently and serenely but with an ecstatic climax. A lovely, memorable creation, this movement. The finale returns to comedy and high jinks, yet shadows lurk too. There is a prominent part for the xylophone.

Irresistible, all the colour, sexy glamour and excitement one could wish for…great fun. And delivered in first class Chandos engineered Super Audio sound

Ian Lace

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ Jim Westhead



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