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Hyperion Records

CDA67599 - Schmitt: Orchestral Music
The Death of John the Baptist (detail) by Jack Hayes
Private Collection / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67599
Recording details: October 2006
Brangwyn Hall, Guildhall, Swansea, Wales
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: June 2007
Total duration: 78 minutes 1 seconds

DISQUE DU MOIS (CLASSICA REPERTOIRE)

'Thierry Fischer is a committed advocate of this often mesmerising score, and the BBC NOW rises enthusiastically to its challenges, sinister at first, glitzy in the Dance of Pearls, and packing a punch at the end … Christine Buffle is a commanding soloist … the orchestra and chorus clearly have a tremendous time … the rarely heard Suite sans esprit de suite is an engaging bonus in a packed and enticing disc' (BBC Music Magazine)

'One of his most stirring pieces [Psalm 47]. However, his exotic ballet on the Salome story is his masterpiece, and it is scored with great ingenuity; the lesser known Suite, finally, strings together five varied dances … the performances are excellent and full of telling detail' (The Daily Telegraph)

'This is exhilarating stuff on a big—make that B-I-G—scale … and Hyperion delivers cold, colorful sonics—almost SACD quality—to match' (American Record Guide)

'The three thrilling and beautiful works recorded here make a strong case for his music … Psalm 47 … is a work extravagant enough for Schmitt to have been termed 'the new Berlioz' … music that swaggers with barbaric splendour and radiates luxuriant ecstasy … this is a fantastically uplifting musical spectacular! [Suite sans esprit de suite] the work as a whole exudes brilliance and tenderness, wit and charm, and is orchestrated both skilfully and imaginatively … [La tragédie de Salomé] whether mysterious or furious, Schmitt's command of orchestral magnificence and colour is masterly, as is his ability to characterise through melody and sound. These three works enjoy a resounding and sensitive response from Thierry Fischer and his BBC Welsh forces in music that will surely find popularity through this release … resplendent in performance and recording quality' (International Record Review)

'Thierry Fischer's no-holds-barred approach brings Schmitt's Psalm and Salomé to vivid life … terrific stuff' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Hyperion’s panoramic aural perspective, warmly detailed in quieter moments and tumultuously filled at the frequently frenzied, makes a best sonic case for these overloaded blockbusters, the glistening, profound orchestral capture rendering Florent Schmitt’s fin de siecle contrivance of luridly empurpled passages with varieties of violet and mauve, so to speak, as seen through smog in a Los Angeles sunset … enthusiastically recommended' (Fanfare, USA)

'Fischer's slightly slower tempos and stunning sonics capture the crushing power of both pieces so well that there's no question of any lack of excitement. The magnificent engineering really counts in this brilliant but also very heavily scored music. The BBC National Orchestra plays with plenty of power … if you don't know this music, here's your chance to get acquainted with two very grand 20th century masterpieces' (ClassicsToday.com)

'Psalm 47 is certainly not for the faint-hearted. It begins and ends in a huge welter of sound, with vigorous dance rhythms and brilliantly coloured orchestration. The BBC Chorus of Wales gives a confident account of music its members can’t have sung very often, if at all. Anglo-Swiss soprano Christine Buffle sings the seductively tender central solo with great tonal warmth, matched by orchestra leader Lesley Hatfield’s supple playing in the accompanying violin obbligato … the orchestral sound in this performance 'La tragédie de Salomé' has a seductive tonal allure, and some beautifully phrased woodwind playing, the dance rhythms have a real spring in their heels, and the wordless women’s voices of the chorus and solo soprano Jennifer Walker take their place as an additional tone-colour very effectively. The whole thing is shaped with a keen sense of drama … Hyperion’s recording has depth and presence, and handles the massive wall of sound in Psalm 47 comfortably. This is Thierry Fischer’s first recording as Principal Conductor of BBCNOW; it looks set to be an exciting partnership' (ClassicalSource.com)

'L'enthousiasme du chef, l'assurance de ses musiciens et la discipline des choeurs (parfaitement intelligibles): Il y avait de quoi nous offrir un Psaume XLVII titanesque et extatique à souhait' (Diapason, France)

Orchestral Music
Majeza  [2'53]
Charmilles  [7'18]
Thrène  [3'27]
Bronx  [2'36]
Prélude  [10'11]
Danse des perles  [3'56]
[untitled]  [1'34]

One of the great exponents of the extroverted, Dionysiac strain in French music, Florent Schmitt’s influences included such riches as the music of Muslim countries, the symphonic poems of Richard Strauss, and the Russian nationalist composers. Added to his ear for pungent dissonances and assured technique of orchestration, the result is hugely opulent and extravagant music of fertile and thrilling invention.

La tragedié de Salomé is Schmitt’s most famous work, staged by Diaghilev and other choreographers and greatly admired by Stravinsky. An air of sensuality and oriental violence is captured by the composer’s entirely original harmonic writing and unusual rhythmic formations which he groups into pulverizing cumulative ostinati.

Psaume XLVII is a defiantly unecclesiastical treatment of a sacred text, interpreted by Schmitt as a paean of savage triumph sung by an oriental race. It is a piece of grand rhetoric and almost barbaric élan, recorded here by the Anglo-Swiss soprano Christine Buffle and The BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales under Thierry Fischer.


Other recommended albums
'Delius & Ireland: Piano Concertos' (CDA67296)
Delius & Ireland: Piano Concertos
'Hahn & Vierne: Piano Quintets' (CDA67258)
Hahn & Vierne: Piano Quintets
'Vaughan Williams: Over hill, over dale' (CDA66777)
Vaughan Williams: Over hill, over dale
'Fauré: Piano Quartets' (CDA66166)
Fauré: Piano Quartets
'Xenakis: Choral Music' (CDA66980)
Xenakis: Choral Music

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The term ‘French music’ tends to summon up an image of urbane classicism, fastidious craftsmanship, exquisite detail, subtle colours, and a wit and an economy of means that can border on the laconic. In their different ways Ravel, Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Poulenc, Françaix, and to some extent Debussy are representatives of this Apollonian aesthetic. But there has always been a strong contrary tradition—towards the monumental, the Dionysiac, the highly coloured, the exotic and barbaric. Berlioz, Félicien David, Roussel, Jolivet, the Messiaen of Turangalîla, and the French expatriate Edgard Varèse testify to the strength of that Dionysiac impulse. (Transposed to painting, the contrast might be between, say, Monet and Gauguin.) Another important exponent of this Dionysiac strain in French music—in fact he composed a symphonic poem for wind orchestra called Dionysiaques—is Florent Schmitt.

The son of a cloth manufacturer, Schmitt was born in 1870 in Blâmont, Meurthe-et-Moselle, in the province of Lorraine, which within the first year of his life came to be only a few miles from the redrawn border with Germany. The close intermingling of French- and German-speaking populations in Lorraine and Alsace, which were mostly lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, accounts for his German-sounding surname. Something of a late starter, he had his first musical education in Nancy. In 1889 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied with Dubois, Lavignac, Massenet and Fauré, whom he greatly admired and whose influence may be heard in his very early work Soirs (1890), originally a set of piano preludes which he later arranged as a suite for small orchestra. The same work discloses an affinity to Schumann. After military service as a flautist in an army band, Schmitt won the Prix de Rome in 1900 with his cantata Sémiramis, and his reputation was soon after confirmed by the appearance of his major choral work Psaume XLVII (Psalm 47), scored for soprano solo, mixed chorus, organ and large orchestra. This was composed in 1904 as an ‘Envoi de Rome’ while Schmitt, as customary for a Prix de Rome winner, was working at the Villa Medici, the French Institute’s headquarters in Rome. In fact he was seldom in residence, and spent much of his time travelling throughout Europe sampling the contemporary music on offer. The music of Muslim countries, especially the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey), fascinated him, and its influence can be felt in Psaume XLVII.

Schmitt took his text for Psaume XLVII from the French translation of the Vulgate (in which the psalm is numbered 46; his work is sometimes called Psalm 46 in Catholic countries), but his treatment of it is defiantly un-ecclesiastical. Instead he interpreted the text as a paean of savage triumph sung by an oriental race; in his autobiography he said that he was trying to transpose into Biblical terms the ceremonial acclamations of the Ottoman Sultan which he had witnessed at Istanbul in 1903. From the deliberately clashing fanfares of the opening, the result is full-blooded, making extravagant but thrilling use of the large forces at Schmitt’s disposal, and with a pronounced exotic, eastern flavour. The orientalism is really all this work can be said to share with the contemporary compositions of Debussy and Ravel: the piece’s grand rhetoric and pulverizing climaxes have more in common with the symphonic poems of Richard Strauss, whom Schmitt greatly admired, and the pungent dissonances of Schmitt’s harmony (which look towards Strauss’s not-yet-composed Salome and Elektra) strike a new note in French music. So do Schmitt’s insistent, jabbing dotted rhythms, which give the music a kind of barbaric élan.

When the noise and fury subsides, in the middle section, it is replaced by an equally ‘oriental’ evocation of sensuous languor, led off by melismatic writing for violin and bassoon that would not be out of place in a setting of the Song of Solomon, but the final part of the work piles Pelion upon Ossa in terms of sheer orchestral force. It was this aspect of the work which most impressed its first audiences and seemed to announce the arrival of a major new force in French music when the Psalm was premiered in the concert hall of the Paris Conservatoire in December 1906. Schmitt’s friend, the bohemian poet Léon-Paul Fargue, wrote dithyrambs in (untranslatable) approval of the new sounds produced by ‘cet orchestre de triphtongues, de saxotartes, de trimbalets, de tromboches, de pangibles et de fusils …’. It is hardly surprising that Schmitt was soon being dubbed ‘the new Berlioz’ by the French musical press.

Psaume XLVII was followed by a stream of ambitious and forceful compositions which confirmed him in the eyes of his contemporaries as the French composer most directly influenced by German late-Romantic music, and by the Russian nationalist composers, specifically Balakirev, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. A fellow-member—with Ravel, Delage, Fargue, the poet Tristan Klingsor, the conductor Inghelbrecht, the pianist Ricardo Viñes and others—of the exclusive artistic brotherhood who called themslves Les Apaches, Schmitt was an ardent champion of new music and was an early advocate of Stravinsky, an attitude which attracted the younger composer’s friendship and praise. Schmitt was so taken with Stravinsky’s Firebird that he renamed his house ‘Villa Oiseau de feu’. Stravinsky for his part may have been influenced by Schmitt, especially by what was destined to become his most famous work, La tragédie de Salomé Op 50, which he persuaded Diaghilev to put on stage. While taking up a subject to which Strauss had devoted an opera, this work, which Schmitt dedicated to Stravinsky, represents the summit of his achievement in ‘Franco-Russian’ style.

La tragédie de Salomé originated in a commission from the writer Robert d’Humières to produce an accompaniment for a scenario about the Jewish princess which he had written for the dancer Loie Fuller (celebrated in verse by W B Yeats). This Schmitt fulfilled with the completion in November 1907 of a ballet for a small orchestra of twenty players. Strauss’s opera had received its first Paris performance only six months before, but d’Humières’ scenario does not follow the Oscar Wilde version of the story of Salome, her lust for the prophet Jochanaan (John the Baptist) and her dance before Herod which formed Strauss’s libretto. Indeed, d’Humières conceived his work as a kind of moral answer to Wilde’s supposed amorality. In his version the action centres on Salome dancing for Herod—which she does in a whole series of dances that arouse his ardour. According to d’Humières, though, Salome is essentially innocent, obedient to her mother. She does not desire the execution of the prophet and casts away his head in horror, only to be pursued by a phantom of it which drives her to a frenzy of guilt and fear. Thus the title: ‘The tragedy of Salome’.

The ballet was rapturously received and ran for fifty performances. In 1909 Schmitt made a symphonic suite for large orchestra, comprising about half of the original music, and it is this version, which was not performed until 1911, which has become comparatively well known. (Schmitt himself conducted a recording of it in 1930.) In April 1912 it—the suite, not the full ballet, which was not revived until recent times—was staged, not by Diaghilev but by the short-lived rival company of Natasha Trouhanova, at the Théâtre du Châtelet in an evening of French ballet that also included Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, d’Indy’s Istar and Paul Dukas’s La Péri. Schmitt’s work was the sensation of the four, and this success, coupled with Stravinsky’s advocacy, led to a spectacular staging in 1913 by the Ballets russes with sets and costumes by Serge Sudeykin (whose wife, Vera de Bosset, would eventually become Stravinsky’s second wife).

The highly coloured violence and exoticism of Schmitt’s score certainly owes something to Strauss, and even more to Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Sheherazade, a work whose key position in the formation of twentieth-century modernism—especially through the effect of Rimsky’s highly individual harmonic techniques on Stravinsky—tends to be neglected when considering its obvious programmatic elements. The air of oriental sensuality and violence present in Rimsky’s work is enormously amplified in Schmitt’s, along with his personal adaptation of Impressionist musical vocabulary. But there is much that is original in the score, notably the dissonant harmonic sensations achieved by the bitonal combination of superimposed chords, and the unusual rhythmic formations which Schmitt groups into pulverizing cumulative ostinati. There is every reason to think that Stravinsky in 1910–11 found elements in Schmitt’s score that he was able to use in his own fashion in composing Le sacre du printemps in 1911–13. This is especially the case with the rhythmically complex and virtuosic ‘Danse de l’effroi’.

Schmitt’s symphonic suite reduces the eight sections of the original ballet to five. The mysterious, crepuscular Prelude is a study in the orchestra’s darker timbres, essentially concerned to set the scene and evoke an oriental night tremulous with suppressed passion that will set the drama in motion. The ‘Danse des perles’ (Dance of the Pearls) corresponds to Salome’s first dance before Herod and is contrastingly brilliant in its orchestration. Part II illustrates the gathering storm and the darkening mood of tragedy and cruelty that envelops Salome and Herod’s entire court, while the final ‘Danse de l’effroi’ (Dance of Terror) is Salome’s last frenzied dance as her reason gives way and she strives to escape the visions of blood and destruction that pursue her, bringing the work to its orgiastic conclusion.

Though Stravinsky praised Schmitt’s Salomé extravagantly in an often-quoted letter to Schmitt, and though he told the London Daily Mail in February 1913 that ‘France possesses in Debussy, Ravel and Florent Schmitt the foremost musicians of the day’, their friendship rapidly cooled. In later years (according to Robert Craft, in his edition of Stravinsky’s letters) his opinion of Schmitt’s music was ‘unprintable’; but a catalyst for this reversal of his former praise was the fact that it was Schmitt and not Stravinsky who was elected to the Institut de France in 1936 to fill the vacancy left by the death of Paul Dukas.

Throughout a long and highly productive life, Schmitt continued to compose a host of stage, orchestral, vocal, chamber and piano works. During his career he was President of the Société nationale de musique, and a member of the Société musicale indépendante. In 1914 he was enlisted into military service, and sent to serve in the front line at his own request. After the war, from 1921 to 1924 he was Director of the Lyons Conservatoire, and in 1929 became music critic for Le Temps, a position which he occupied in the manner of a high arbiter of national taste. In 1936, as mentioned above, Schmitt was elected to the Institut de France and the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Schmitt remained, on the whole, true to the compositional ideals which had brought him his early successes. And, as sometimes seems to happen with artists who were ranked among the leaders of the avant-garde of their youth, Schmitt began to feel increasingly disenchanted with the direction that music was taking between the wars. Always a passionate French nationalist, his political leanings took an ever more pronounced rightward turn. He became increasingly vocal when he attended performances in his critical capacity, abusing new works or their performers from his seat in the hall—or, contrariwise, berating the audience when he felt they were not sufficiently appreciating some new work that he approved of. The most notorious incident occurred in November 1933, when Schmitt led a pro-Hitler and anti-Semitic protest against the performance of numbers from Der Silbersee by Kurt Weill (who had recently escaped from Nazi Germany) at the Salle Pleyel, resulting in a newspaper scandale. Weill’s French publisher, Heugel, called Schmitt an irresponsible lunatic. During the war, Schmitt remained in Vichy France and accepted honours from Pétain’s government. Such behaviour was sufficient for him and his music to fall into comparative obscurity after the war, though he continued to compose. In 1952 he was awarded the Légion d’honneur, and in 1957 he received the Grand Prix de la Ville de Paris, less than a year before his death.

The Suite sans esprit de suite, Op 89, dates from 1937, during the period of Schmitt’s turbulent critical career. He composed it first for piano solo but then immediately produced the version for orchestra we hear on this disc. Compared to the Psalm and Salomé it is comparatively restrained, even neoclassical in expression, and quite light-hearted in mood, though every page continues to show the hand of a master-orchestrator. Nor does it show much oriental influence, being rather a score of Mediterranean warmth and clarity. The title is an untranslatable pun, for the French phrase ‘esprit de suite’ means not ‘the spirit of a Suite’ but rather ‘coherence’, ‘consistency’; so something that is ‘sans esprit de suite’ would therefore be inconsistent, indeed a ‘non sequitur’. Schmitt presumably meant to indicate that his work comprised a number of contrasted movements without any larger interrelationship (which might, in fact, accord with the popular idea of what a suite could be). Yet in its own way the piece does establish an inner unity from the fact that all of its five movements are infused with the spirit of the dance, each one alluding to a different kind of dance-measure.

The opening ‘Majeza’ (brilliance or flashiness—a word deriving from the aristocracy of eighteenth-century Madrid) is a lively dance-overture, whose highly rhythmic main idea is briefly contrasted with a more sinuous and sensuous chromatic theme. The exquisite ‘Charmilles’ (bowers) is a tender yet sumptuous barcarolle in which we can hear affectionate echoes of both Fauré and Ravel. The hoydenish ‘Pécorée de Calabre’ (Calabrian peasant girl) is a brief, obstreperous Spanish dance, a kind of jota. The grave and statuesque ‘Thrène’ (Threnody) is cast as a sarabande with a modal cast to its melodies, perhaps referring to ancient Greece and ideals of unattainable classic beauty. As the title of the finale, ‘Bronx’, might lead us to expect, this last movement alludes to jazz music, to cakewalks, ragtimes and shimmys. For all his disapproval of modern trends, Schmitt shared the fascination of many French composers—such as his friend Ravel—with jazz rhythms and character, and he creates a sophisticated melange of dance-steps and big-city sounds to give a raucously good-humoured conclusion to his suite. Though not one of his most important works, Suite sans esprit de suite is a characteristic expression of the gifts of one of the most assured orchestrators and most fertile minds in twentieth-century French music.

Calum MacDonald © 2007

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