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Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
Complete Original Works for Piano Duet and Duo - Volume 1
Trois Rapsodies Op.53 for two pianos (1903-04) [21:54]
Sept pièces Op.15 for piano four hands (1899) [26:03]
Rhapsodie parisienne (1900) [6:12]
The Invencia Piano Duo
rec. Wilson G. Chandler Recital Hall, Old Dominion University, Norfolk Virginia USA 3 January 2010 (Op.53); 5 January 2010 (Op.15); 3 June 2011 (Rhapsodie)
GRAND PIANO GP621 [54:14]

When I welcomed a disc of Schmitt’s orchestral music in 2011 I commented that I was none the wiser whether he was a great composer or not. In part this was due to the fact that the music on that particular CD was - relatively - well-known but also because it was early and thereby hard to judge how the composer might mature. The current disc in part rectifies this by offering two world premieres but the maturity issue remains. Schmitt lived until 1958 but the latest work here is from 1904. The CD liner tells us that this is Volume One of four which will contain all the original works for Piano 4-hands and 2 pianos. The point is also made that all of the music for these instrumental combinations was written between 1893 and 1912.
 
Rather bravely the liner bullishly states; “Schmitt stands alongside Debussy and Ravel as one of the most original and influential composers of his time”. I’ll leave that comment hanging in the air for the moment - I’m not sure it helps a composer to make such well-intentioned but unsubstantiated comments. Certainly nothing on this disc, pleasant though much of it is, supports that as a theory. According to Leslie De’Ath’s article elsewhere on this site he wrote some 88 works for piano duet so through sheer quantity alone he is one of the leading French composers in the medium. The disc opens with the Trois Rapsodies Op.53 for 2 pianos. This work has been recorded before - in 1956 by Robert and Gaby Cassedesus. Each movement has a title; Française,Polonaise and Viennoise respectively and waltz rhythms dominate. One can see why this has maintained a toe-hold within the repertoire and its appeal lies in the fluency of the writing and the charm of the melodies. What it lacks is that scintilla of musical backbone to lift it away from the easy charm of a sophisticated salon alone. Without doubt all the music here shares a harmonic landscape and spirit with Debussy and Ravel - but it is those composers in their earlier and/or more relaxed incarnations. With the former it’s Debussy of circa 1890. Check Ravel’s compositional catalogue and you will see that at around the same time that Schmitt was writing these works Ravel was producing his Miroirs - “la différence entre la craie et le fromage” if the phrase exists so literally in French! Concerns also surface regarding the quality of the performance. For sure this is perfectly reasonable playing by the Invencia Piano Duo but they seem to lack the musical charm and technical panache to lift the music from the passable into the exceptional. By chance for pleasure I listened recently to a duet disc by Peter Donohoe and Martin Jones - playing of near super-human unanimity and flair in which company the Invencia pale to something much more mundane. Likewise the production and engineering of the disc is acceptable but no more and some way off demonstration class with the piano(s) recorded quite close and with relatively little acoustic around them. The pianos used are Steinway Model D Concert Grands but I have heard such instruments recorded to much better effect.
 
The longest work on the disc is also the earliest - Sept pièces Op.15 for piano four hands. This was Schmitt’s first large-scale work for piano duet. The influences are pretty clear for all to hear but there is a natural modesty about the writing that is very charming. Each movement has a picturesque title that immediately identifies its character as well as showing the homage to the likes of Schumann and latterly Chabrier. Indeed Chabrier would seem to be more of a link than either Debussy or Ravel due to the Salon aesthetic that hovers over much of this music. However, in direct comparison it is hard not to declare Chabrier the more impressive composer; try his Trois Valses romantiques of 1883 in direct comparison to the Trois Rapsodies. Highlights of the Sept pièces are the third movement Scintillement and the closing Traversé heureuse. Both are gems and they receive effectively sympathetic performances. Curiously, the work I liked best on this disc by some distance was the unpublished Rhapsodie parisienne of 1900. The current duet gave the work its American premiere in 2011. Indications on the manuscript show that it was intended to be orchestrated which perhaps explains the exuberant energy of the work and why the Duo perform it on two pianos as opposed to the piano 4-hands of the original score; in other words the manuscript is a short score rather than performing material. Certainly it receives the most dynamic performance on the disc by some way. As an aside - I am probably showing my linguistic ignorance here; but when is a Rapsodie not a Rhapsodie since both spellings are used here?
 
As mentioned earlier, the liner is rather curiously written. Choice comments include a reference to Schmitt’s “complex and vast Second Symphony”. Now the only version of that I know is on Marco Polo conducted by Leif Segerstam. Nothing indicates that version is cut but it lasts a rather un-vast and not overly-complex 24 minutes and while it is quite interesting for 1957 Darmstadt wasn’t quite rewriting its rule book on account just yet. Likewise it says “(he) became a highly-respected and visible role model for his contemporaries.” Apparently, from 1929 Schmitt established himself as a controversial critic in which post he courted controversy with his habit of shouting out instant verdicts form his seat in the hall. The publisher Heugel went so far as to brand him “an irresponsible lunatic” in response to one particularly vitriolic outburst after some Kurt Weill songs. From any of the on-line biographies and the Stanley Sadie New Grove there is no reference to any pupils except that he was director of the Lyon Conservatory from 1922-24 so it is hard to fathom quite how influential he was certainly post-World War I.
 
The truth would seem to be that, at his best, Schmitt wrote some very good, typically French music of the early 20th Century but that it belongs to the second rank is not a damning judgement simply an objective one. Composers such as Ropartz or Magnard share a similar status although I find their music of more sustained and sustaining interest. Add the consideration of rather mean playing time - the total timing of the Sept pieces is wrongly given on the CD cover as 32:20 - in fact they play for a more modest 26:03; the given total disc time of 54:14 is correct - so whilst collectors of piano duet music will welcome this release interest must be limited for the more general music enthusiast.
 
Nick Barnard



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