There remains the special thrill of auditioning something unfamiliar. The music doesn’t have to be new, just unknown to the listener. It may disappoint, it might be a revelation.
Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) studied with Fauré and Massenet at the Paris Conservatoire and from 1922 to 1924 he was director of the one in Lyon. In 1929 Schmitt was appointed music critic for Le Temps (a “high arbiter of national taste”), when it seems he also tended to voice his opinion from his concert-hall seat! In 1933 Schmitt led a pro-Hitler and anti-Semitic rally (the target being Kurt Weill) and during World War Two he was paid tribute to by Pétain’s government yet was also decorated in post-war France, not least with the Légion d’honneur: just part of Schmitt’s long and eventful life.
As a composer, surely the only consideration here, he developed a musical style notably rich and kaleidoscopic. In 1904 his setting of Psaume XLVII appeared and was extravagant enough for Schmitt to have been termed “the new Berlioz”. Perhaps his best-known orchestral work is La tragédie de Salomé (a re-working of a ballet score), now recorded a few times, not least in 1930 by the composer himself conducting L’Orchestre des Concerts Walter Straram, and by Paul Paray, his 1958 Detroit taping for Mercury. There is a much more recent version on Hyperion conducted by Thierry Fischer, coupled to Psaume XLVII.
No claims are made for first recordings on this Naxos release, but everything here is a premiere for your reviewer. Le Palais hanté (The Haunted Palace, 1904), after Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 poem, as translated into French by Mallarmé, is by turns evocative, sinister and dramatic – and with passages that are quite lovely – the orchestra used with much flair, and the invention, while obviously French, is distinct from that of Schmitt’s contemporaries, not least Ravel and Debussy. This is music with a real sense of theatre and the capacity to paint pictures and engage the imagination.
So too the meat of this release, the forty-six minutes of Antoine et Cléopâtre (1920), Schmitt doing Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra proud, music that sucks the listener in, bringing characters and situations alive, and on its own terms ravishes the senses (for the love of the named pair) and excites the red corpuscles (there’s a pulsating, becoming barbaric orgy, and how alluring is its aftermath!). This is music high on imagery, poetic expression and with rivers of colour and description. The time spent with the six pieces passes quickly and rewardingly: terrific brass fanfares to open ‘Le Camp de Pompée’, for example, and the later night music is exotic and perfumed alluringly. How tragic and emotionally raw ‘Le Tombeau de Cléopâtre’ is.
There is then much to relish in Schmitt’s ideas and orchestration, and much to admire in JoAnn Falletta’s devoted conducting of music that she clearly believes in. The excellent Buffalo Philharmonic is with her all the way, and Tim Handley’s production values and engineering skills ensure that it all reaches us vividly and dynamically. As used to be said to round off reviews of yore: recommended with enthusiasm.