Schmitt
Antoine et Cléopâtre – Six épisodes symphoniques en deux suites d’après le drame de Shakespeare, Opp.69a & 69b
Symphony No.2 in E-flat, Op.137
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Recorded 29 & 30 October 2017 at Watford Colosseum, England
CD No: CHANDOS CHSA 5200 [SACD]
Duration: 78 minutes
Reviewed: February 2018

The disjoint in recent decades between the repertoire played in concerts by our professional orchestras and that recorded regularly by commercial companies has become so wide that any music-lover (or professional musician) seeking to enlarge their knowledge has first to turn to catalogues rather than to the somewhat anodyne programming that has now become the norm in concert-halls across the planet. One wonders if the fact that interesting repertoire continues to be recorded ever crosses the minds of concert-planners.

I’m not saying that the BBC of all concert-giving/-relaying organisations is stuck in the Mahler-Strauss-Stravinsky-Ravel-Prokofiev-Shostakovich merry-go-round of music from the twentieth-century, other than to point out that in a little over eighteen months we shall enter the third decade of the current century, where the corporate mind-set of performing new music appears to be fixated on ‘yoof’, as opposed to whether the music played is any good or not, and where the number of orchestral works to have appeared in the last twenty-five years which seem likely to enter the repertoire is precisely zilch.

If there are sufficient record-buyers to make commercial sense of recording and issuing music which is rarely encountered in concerts, then just once in a while it might be a good idea for programmers to test the water.

After all, this release is the second in a series Chandos has instigated of the music of Florent Schmitt – a composer virtually unknown outside of a few enclaves in France, so that when one considers the undoubted quality of Schmitt’s work, his continuing neglect is rather as if Ravel were only played by provincial or semi-professional orchestras in France and never at all in other countries.

Not that I regard Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) as a neglected great figure, but he was undoubtedly – and demonstrably so – a fabulously gifted composer, as this recording reveals. The music here spans a wide period in Schmitt’s long life – from the remarkable Suites he extracted from the music he was commissioned by Ida Rubinstein to accompany a new translation and production of Shakespeare’s play in 1920, to his Second Symphony from his penultimate year.

The Suites each comprise three movements from the original score; Schmitt’s Second Symphony is also in three movements. Whilst one would be mistaken to claim these works are neglected masterpieces, they are certainly unfairly neglected, and are performed with such excellence and commitment here as to lead me to urge those music-lovers with a penchant for the unusual in music to investigate this release as a matter of urgency.

Schmitt’s ‘style’ is a fascinating one: clearly, he exhibits more than passing influences of Debussy – from La mer and Images certainly – but also embracing aspects of the emerging post-World War One dynamism of rhythmic freedom, such as we hear in Ibert’s (later) Escales, rooted profoundly in the mastery and formal Gallic qualities of Saint-Saëns. It is a fascinating and, indeed, compelling mixture, at all times securely handled by a composer who knows exactly what he is doing and why, and one who conveys that certainty to the listener. One puzzle remains: in terms of expressive structuralisation, I was reminded of Stravinsky’s (unstated) ethos – there is nothing inherently ‘symphonic’ in Schmitt’s Opus 137 which is not encountered consistently in his theatre music. Perhaps the inspiration was similar, but is never stated in the concert work, yet the one character of all of this music is entirely that of the composer, and of no-one else.

The result is late musical Impressionism of a very high order – and Schmitt’s total command of orchestration demonstrates that Ravel and Widor were not the only French composers of their time who had mastered the orchestra to a profound degree. Composers – and concert-planners – today could learn much from a study of Schmitt’s orchestral writing and less-educationally-driven music-lovers will be entranced by these colourful and fascinating scores, which are, moreover, supremely well-played and recorded, Sakari Oramo proving himself yet again a master-conductor in obtaining such outstanding playing.

 

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