Wednesday 2 September 2020

A distinct voice: a new disc from Resonus explores Florent Schmitt's Mélodies, a wide-ranging survey of song by an under-rated composer

Florent Schmitt Mélodies; Sybille Diethelm, Annina Haug, Nino Aurelio Gmünder, René Perler, Fabienne Romer, Edward Rushton; Resonus Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 August 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Spanning over half a century, a survey of the songs of Florent Schmitt reveals a fascinating side to this still under-rated composer

Florent Schmitt Mélodies; Sybille Diethelm, Annina Haug, Nino Aurelio Gmünder, René Perler, Fabienne Romer, Edward Rushton; Resonus Classics
Florent Schmitt is an intriguing figure, a lesser-known 20th century French composer whose work is not entirely unknown but who still does not have a strongly defined profile. Ever since the 1970s, when performances of his large-scale setting Psaume XLVII began to appear in concert halls and on disc, individual works or groups of works have come to the fore without Schmitt's career being in strong focus, most recently and most intriguingly in 2017 the BBC Symphony Orchestra performed Schmitt's Antoine et Cléopâtre Suites, music from a 1920s production of Shakespeare's play translated by Andre Gide.

Now a new disc from Resonus Classics gives us a chance to explore Florent Schmitt's Mélodies and of the 25 songs on the disc, 17 are world premiere recordings. The performers are soprano Sybille Diethelm, mezzo-soprano Annina Haug, tenor Nino Aurelio Gmünder, bass-baritone René Perler, pianist Fabienne Romer and pianist Edward Rushton, and the disc includes not only six groups of songs but also Schmitt's Chansons à quatre voix for four singers and two pianists.

Schmitt was born in Nancy and studied at the Paris Conservatoire under Gabriel Faure and Jules Massenet, going on to win the Prix de Rome in 1900. During the 1890s Schmitt was friendly with Frederick Delius, then living in Paris, and Schmitt prepared vocal scores of four of Delius' operas. As a composer Schmitt was influenced by Debussy but also Wagner and Richard Strauss. He was present at the premiere of Stravinsky's Le sacre du Printemps and was a great supporter of the work. Though in the 1930s he was more of a controversialist, shouting 'Vive Hitler' at a 1933 concert which included music by Kurt Weill who had recently fled Germany, and during the Second World War collaborating with the Vichy regime by accepting an honorary position. As Edward Rushton discusses in his illuminating booklet note, Schmitt's sins seem no worse than other composers of the time who are now feted, but some aura seems to still cling to Schmitt. He was long-lived, dying in 1958.

To put him into context, he was born eight years after Debussy, five years before Ravel and 29 years before Poulenc, and would die when Pierre Boulez was 33.

Florent Schmitt in 1900
Florent Schmitt in 1900
The present disc begins with Chansons à quatre voix from 1905, where Schmitt does very much seem to have been channelling the vocal quartets of Brahms, Schumann and Schubert. The work is linked to Schmitt's Reflets for piano duet, also from the same year, which very much invokes the spirit of Brahms, and all these influences serve to create a work which is rather striking and is difficult to place in terms of time and date, certainly the music is a long way from the classic French mélodie of the period. Each song is titled with an adjective, feminine in gender and referring to la chanson, so we start with Véhémente and end with Tendre. Listened to cold, this is music that would,  I think, be difficult to place except for the very Brahmsian cast of the waltzes. For the quartets, all six performers take part, and then for the rest of the disc we have a series of different pairings with the two pianists taking it in turns.

Next comes Quatre Lieds from 1912, sung by tenor Nino Aurelio Gmünder. These are rather dark, serious pieces setting contemporary French poets, Jean Richepin (1849-1926), Catulle Blée (1869-?), and Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), but though the poets include Maeterlinck and though Schmitt admired Debussy, there is little hint at Debussy's prosody in these songs. But the sense of symbolism and harmonic richness is definitely of the period as is the obscurity of the poetry, the songs are a musical reflection of the darker aura of Symbolism. The songs are short and concentrated, intense and with a wonderful sense of period. The lush harmonies balanced by the sometimes sparse accompaniment and the almost expressionist cast to some of the vocal lines.

In 1914 Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire was premiered in Berlin, and the composers Igor Stravinsky and Edgar Varese were present and then reported back to Maurice Ravel in Paris. The result would be Ravel's Trois poems de Stephane Mallarme which was premiered at a concert of music by French composers, many of whom seemed invigorated to be breathing the air of Pierrot Lunaire. In this concert was a piano duet by Schmitt, but you can trace a line from this event to Schmitt's 1924 cycle Kerob-Shal, sung here by soprano Sybille Diethelm. These are settings of poems by Rene Kerdyk (1885-1945), G. Jean Aubry (1882-1950) and Rene Chalupt (1885-1957) and the exotic-sounding title is an anagram of the first syllables of the poets' surnames! The vocal line and the piano writing here seem to move into a different world to the 1912 songs. Here the vocal line is completely expressionist in shape and intensity, with the piano providing a vivid and sometimes complex commentary rather than supporting or accompanying.

For the next two groups of songs we moved back to earlier in Schmitt's career, with Trois Mélodies from 1895, sung by bass-baritone René Perler, and Deux Chansons from 1901, sung by mezzo-soprano Annina Haug. The Trois Mélodies, setting Camille Mauclair (1872-1945), Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) and Maurice Ganivet (1849-1884), inhabit a definite late Romantic world but the darkly serious vocal line has distinct affinities with the composer's later expressionist writing and the piano is sparer than we might have expected. Deux Chansons, setting  Georges Maze-Sencier, Paul Arosa (1874-c1945), is a pair of contrasting songs, the one serious and melancholic, the other edgily humorous, both shot through with richness of harmony

Quatre Poèmes de Ronsard, sung by tenor Nino Aurelio Gmünder, take us to the later part of Schmitt's career. These settings of poems by the 16th century French poet are unusual in Schmitt's repertoire in that he is not using a contemporary poet. The music is rather neo-Classical and Edward Rushton in his booklet note links this to Schmitt's both turning his back on Germanic culture and also being influenced by harpsichordist Wanda Landowska for whose pupil Marcelle de Lacour, Schmitt composed a harpsichord work in 1945. For all the neoclassicism, we can also hear Schmitt's voice in the richness of some of the harmony and in the hints of expressionism in the vocal line. There also a sense of the composer being somewhat out of time (he was over 70 when they were written), not consciously looking back but not quite of the moment either.

The final work on the disc is another wartime one, Trois Chants from 1943, sung by soprano Sybille Diethelm. Three substantial settings of Charles Vildrac (1882-1971), Leila de Dampierre (1891-1955) and Charles Sanglier (1875-1963); the total cycle lasts over 15 minutes. These are big pieces in more ways than one, complex and serious, full of rich harmonies and spiky moments. There is a restlessness and intensity to the writing

One thing that struck me when preparing this article was how many of the poets were completely or relatively unfamiliar to me. Clearly, Schmitt's taste in poetry, notably contemporary French poetry, did not run concurrent with his colleagues. This has bearing on another point, that throughout these songs Schmitt's prosody, the way he sets the texts, does not invoke his colleagues, we certainly have little hint of the subtly inflected prose-like settings of Debussy or Ravel, nor the intense and brief wit of Francis Poulenc. Instead, Schmitt has his own way with his language, so that whatever the other influences you always sense the composer's presence.

Performances from all concerned are admirable, perhaps there is an occasional bit of strain or tension, but overall the singers and pianists allow us to consider what is most important, the music. With songs ranging from 1895 to 1943, this disc provides something of an alternative history of French song in the first half of the 20th century. Florent Schmitt is a distinct voice and this disc is a welcome addition to the catalogue.

Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) - Chansons à quatre voix, Op. 39 (1905)
Florent Schmitt - Quatre Lieds, Op.45 (1912)
Florent Schmitt - Kérob-Shai, Op. 67 (1924)
Florent Schmitt - Trois Mélodies, Op. 4 (1895)
Florent Schmitt - Deux Chansons, Op. 18 (1901)
Florent Schmitt - Quatre Poèmes de Ronsard, Op. 100 (1942)
Florent Schmitt - Trois Chants, Op. 98 (1943)
Sybille Diethelm (soprano)
Annina Haug (mezzo-soprano)
Nino Aurelio Gmünder (tenor)
René Perler (bass-baritone)
Fabienne Romer (piano)
Edward Rushton (piano)
Recorded in Radiostudtio Zurich on 26-28 January 2020

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful and comprehensive review of this recording. Some of the music on the disk are particularly interesting discoveries.


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