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Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
Chansons à quatre voix (6), Op. 39 (1905) [13:40]
Quatre Lieds, Op. 45 (1912) [8:24]
Kérob-Shal, Op. 67 (1924) [9:49]
Trois Mélodies, Op. 4 (1895) [8:52]
Deux Chansons, Op. 18 (1901) [6:00]
Quatre Poèmes de Ronsard, Op. 100 (1942) [10:09]
Trois Chants, Op. 98 (1943) [15:26]
Sybille Diethelm (soprano), Annina Haug (mezzo-soprano), Nino Aurelio Gmünder (tenor), René Perler (bass-baritone)
Fabienne Romer, Edward Rushton (piano)
rec. 2020, Radiostudio Zurich, Switzerland
RESONUS RES10265 [72:33]

Florent Schmitt was born in the department of Meurthe-et-Mosellen in the Grand Est region of France but had a Germanic family name. That was perhaps due to the closeness to the German border, and the fact that after the Franco-Prussian war the area along with the Alsace was annexed in 1871 by Germany.

Schmitt is regarded as one of the most interesting of the second tier of French composers. In his book A French Song Companion, Graham Johnson devotes only a brief paragraph to the composer. He writes (on p. 479): “The very name suggests a Germanic heaviness, and it is true that this composer, winner of the Prix de Rome on his fifth attempt in 1900, was much drawn to German romanticism and ‘meaningful music’.” Chansons à quatre voix, Op. 39 does resemble Brahms’s Op. 52 Liebeslieder Waltzes, in structure and content. There are four voices SATB and piano four-hands, but the similarities end there. Schmitt’s music is less romantic than Brahms’s, and it shows more emphasis of the French romantic music of the period. The other music on this disc could only be French. One hears the influence of Schmitt’s teachers, who included Gabriel Fauré and Jules Massenet, and of his friends and colleagues in the ‘Les Apaches’ group. Johnson at times is dismissive of Schmitt’s songs, describes them as over-complicated, especially in the elaborate piano line. He goes on to say that many songs sound like reductions of orchestral songs. Indeed, most of Schmitt’s songs also appear in orchestral versions but they are orchestrations of the piano original. This could, however, explain why search through online catalogues makes his Mélodies very much underrated. Most of those recorded here are only represented on compilation discs, and only eight of have been recorded before.

Six chansons Op. 39 are, as noted, similar in structure to Brahms’s Op. 52. The booklet notes say that they have a close allegiance to Schmitt’s Reflets d'Allemagne, Op.2 8, not vocal music but composed in the same year for piano four-hands. This is especially true in how the Op. 39 include a series of “waltz-vignettes” and has cross-references to Op. 28 The opening song Véhément is heralded by a short joyous introduction on the piano that sets the scene for the whole set of six songs. They have an overwhelmingly positive atmosphere; the booklet notes single out the fifth of them, Tendre, for its complexity in requiring the four singers to each sing their own version of the text. This adds a degree of counterpoint as they weave together a complex and imaginative setting. The songs culminate with Martiale. Despite its subject of a medieval knight riding off to battle, it has a great sense of fun. There follows an uplifting melody even when the text says that “the world is nothing but sorrow”.

The rest of the songs are shared between the four solo voices. The two pianists take turns to play. Johnson writes: “Schmitt’s earlier songs, the Trois Mélodies (Op. 4) […] are the most accessible.” They probably are, with their root firmly based in French romanticism. The second of these Il pleure dans mon coeur is particularly fine. Never mind Johnson, I find all of the songs presented here accessible, even the more strident melodies of the Opp. 98 and 100. There is a lot to enjoy in all the sets of songs recorded here. One wonders why very few of Schmitt’s songs have ever been recorded. In each set of songs there are highlights. In the Quatre Lieds, to verses by French poets, the Evocation is rather lovely, whilst the setting of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Ils ont tué trois petites fillies is wonderful. In the Kérob-Shal, which is an anagram using letters from the names of the poets of the texts used, the first of the songs Octroi, is memorable for its forward looking piano part. It paints a picture of the semi-rural outskirts of Paris on a cool dawn. Of the later songs, the Quatre Poèmes de Ronsard are the finest. Here, Schmitt turs away from contemporary texts to the sixteenth-century Pierre de Ronsard, who was referred to during his own lifetime as the "prince of poets". The texts are set to the composer’s own take on neoclassicism. Some snippets remind one of Debussy or Stravinsky, but are identifiably Schmitt, and blend really well with the text. These are probably the best-known of his songs, amongst those already recorded. The final song is quite lovely. The Trois Chants Op. 98 are the most modern-sounding of the songs here (they have a lower opus number that the Ronsard set but were composed the following year). The sparse vocal and piano lines remind me at times of the least atonal songs of Berg, quite accessible despite their more modernist approach.

So, a wonderful collection of Schmitt’s Mélodies, indispensable since it seems to be the only disc devoted purely to the songs of the French master. It opens the listener to the composer’s world, traces the development of Schmitt’s compositional style and the influences upon it, and disproves a view of the composer as difficult to come to terms with. This is aided by some fine performances. The soprano Sybille Diethelm can sound a little bright at time, especially at the top of the register, but one can forgive this because of her enthusiasm for the music she portrays in her performance. The real star is the bass-baritone René Perler, who adds a sense of grandeur to the recording. All performers play their parts well. The recorded sound is good, as are the booklet notes, with full French texts and English translations provided. This is a vital disc for all fans of the mélodie.

Stuart Sillitoe

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