Sunday 13 December 2015

JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic bring absolutely terrific accounts of works by Florent Schmitt on a new release from Naxos

Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) was born in Blamont in north-eastern France and studied with Massenet and Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire, winning the Prix de Rome in 1900. During the 1890s he became friendly with Frederick Delius, who was also living in Paris.  Other influences were Richard Strauss, Debussy and Fauré as well as Stravinsky. His compositions include vocal, chamber and piano works, music for two ballets and orchestral works that include three symphonies. He later became director of the Lyon Conservatory.

Also amongst his orchestral works are the incidental music to Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra and an Edgar Allan Poe inspired work Le Palais hanté both of which appear on a new release from Naxos featuring the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta


Initially performed as ballet scenes between the acts of a new production of Shakespeare’s play Anthony and Cleopatra at the Paris Opera in 1920, Florent Schmitt drew two concert suites from the music.

Suite No. 1, Op. 69a from Antoine et Cléopâtre – Six épisodes symphoniques en deux suites d’après le drama de Shakespeare (1920) opens with Antoine et Cléopâtre where the music rises up slowly in voluptuous waves of orchestral sound with  Schmitt  using a constantly shifting harmonic palette. There is a passage of quiet, delicate orchestration where the influence of Debussy can be heard (think of La Mer) in the ebb and flow. Later he adds an Eastern flavour with a theme for oboe and string ensemble, later taken up by other wind instruments with a tambourine adding rhythm and colour. There is often a tense, subdued passion and energy before the music rises to a passionate peak leading to a beautifully scented, lush coda.

A brass fanfare opens Le Camp de Pompée (At Pompey’s Camp) before the music falls back. A side drum can be heard as well as an echo of the fanfare in the brass. JoAnn Falletta keeps a real tension until the brass rise up again through some tremendous passages. The brass section of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is superb. Eventually the music falls back with muted brass for the quiet conclusion.

La Bataille d'Actium (Battle of Actium) launches a rhythmically forward moving theme swelling to some fine outbursts pointed up by timpani and percussion. There are some fine woodwind passages before arriving at a gentler passage with horns and strings gently shifting around. Still there is the ebb and flow of the first section before rising to some fine voluptuous climaxes. The music becomes more volatile with percussion outbursts, rising to a pitch with cymbal clash before dropping back, only to rise again at the end.

Nuit au Palais de la Reine (Night in the Palace of the Queen) opens Suite No. 2, Op. 69b with Schmitt conjuring a gentle, Eastern flavoured nocturne with celeste and hushed strings out of which an oboe brings a languid melody. The strings gently glide over the lovely melody as the oboe continues to weave its charm. Soon the music picks up a steadier pace for oboe and strings with a flute adding to the texture as well as many other instrumental details, creating an intoxicating atmosphere. A clarinet subtly brings a recurring motif as the strings rise up romantically. There are more, lovely woodwind passages full of oriental flavour around which strings weave. Though the pace eventually firms up for a time, the music soon slows to a gentle rise and fall that is pointed up by percussion and celeste toward the coda.

Orgie et Danses takes off at a rhythmic pace pointed up by timpani as the music brings little surges. It moves through some wild orchestral passages before a more flowing string passage occurs between more violent outbursts. Odd little motifs appear out of the orchestral texture reminiscent of the Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps showing how this music must have made for some great ballet sequences.  The music rises through some terrific dynamic passages as the music reaches its rhythmic climax, eventually quietening to a hushed passage for solo violin and orchestra, with muted trumpet creating a shifting harmony, quite exotic in flavour. The music flows gently in surges to a final climax before concluding in a quiet, mysterious coda.

Le Tombeau de Cléopâtre (The Tomb of Cleopatra) opens quietly but soon rises up to a short climax before returning to a quieter moment for oboe around which strings ruminate. A little rising and falling motif is heard before the music develops a quiet tread in the orchestra. The oboe appears again in a melancholy theme as low strings ruminate, shifting around mysteriously. Suddenly there is a little outburst coloured by a harp before the music slowly rises with a romantic string theme. Brass join as we are led to a climax for full orchestra and timpani, brass sounding out over the rest of the orchestra. The music pushes ahead in surges of magnificent orchestral sound until quietening for a melancholy sequence as the little rising and falling three note motif is heard before suddenly rising for a final outburst to end.

Stephane Mallarme’s translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace provided the inspiration for Florent Schmitt’s Le Palais hanté, Op. 49 (1904) Étude symphonique pour Le Palais hanté d’Edgar Poë. A bass clarinet opens before the strings bring a gentle melody; JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra bringing some lovely little touches (note how the string entries have a little surge). The opening is repeated before an oboe leads with the melody around which the orchestra flows. It rises in passion with horns and brass adding power and colour as do cymbals and timpani. A climax is reached before the music drops back through a quieter passage until the oboe winds a quiet yet fast moving theme, soon taken by clarinet then other instruments. The music rises through more dynamic passages as well as a quieter, beautiful passage for woodwind. Eventually a number of violent surges arrive, offset by quieter woodwind led passages before scurrying strings hurry to a dynamic coda. 

For all Schmitt’s debt to Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky there is some terrific music here, particularly in the two suites from Antoine et Cléopâtre. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta is absolutely terrific. With an excellent recording from Tim Handley and informative booklet notes this is a most attractive release. 

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