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REVIEW
RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
Antoine et Cléopâtre, Suite No. 1, Op. 69a (1920) [22:29]
I. Antoine et Cleopatre [11:31]
2. Le Camp de Pompée [3:53]
3. La Bataille d'Actium [7:05]
Antoine et Cléopâtre, Suite No. 2, Op. 69b [23:41]
1. Nuit au palais de la Reine [6:54]
2. Orgie et danses [9:45]
3. Le tombeau de Cléopâtre [7:02]
Le Palais hanté, Op. 49 (1904) [13:33]
Buffalo Philharmonic/JoAnn Falletta
rec. 5 & 9 March 2015, Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York, USA
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical.com
Pdf booklet included
NAXOS 8.573521 [59:43]

Ever since I first heard JoAnn Falletta in a terrific programme of Respighi (review) I’ve made a point of seeking out her new recordings. With the exception of a recent spell with the Ulster Orchestra she records mostly with the Buffalo Philharmonic, where she’s been music director for the past fifteen years. Her discography is quite eclectic, but this appears to be her first foray into the music of Florent Schmitt. There’s one other recording of these suites, with Jacques Mercier and the Lorraine National Orchestra, albeit with a different coupling (Timpani 1C1133). Le Palais hanté is included on a Chandos album with Yan Pascal Tortelier and the São Paulo Symphony (review).

Antoine et Cléopâtre, subtitled Six épisodes symphoniques en deux suites d’après le drame de Shakespeare, was intended as ballet music for a new production of the play at the Paris Opéra in 1920. The first glimpse of our protagonists is an enticing one, with subdued brass and seductive harp figures; if one didn’t know the work’s original purpose one might think it a superior piece of film music. It’s vaguely Debussian, with snatches of something headier; Scriabin, perhaps. Falletta plays it straight – no need for gilding of ay kind – and her Buffalonians respond with wonderfully nuanced playing.

The well-blended brass make a splendid noise, especially at the start of Le Camp de Pompée, and the muscular timps are perfectly proportioned in this clear, sensibly balanced recording. What really impresses, though, is the sheer musicality of both the performance and the sound; this is suave, metropolitan music and that’s exactly how it’s presented here. Even the more overtly filmic episodes – La Bataille d'Actium for instance – are handled with a mix of genteel excitement and unfailing good taste. Schmitt’s instrumental colours are striking and the martial effects are well caught by producer/engineer Tim Handley.

Indeed, the sinuous music that opens the second suite – Nuit au palais de la Reine – confirms this as a recording of real quality, the likes of which I’ve not heard from Naxos in ages. The woodwind playing is gorgeous and Falletta brings out plenty of fine detail. Even the Orgie et danses – the merest hint of Saint-Saëns’s Bacchanale, perhaps – is handled with sensitivity and style. No excesses à la Meyerbeer, just good, focused musicianship. Ditto the more tumultuous final section, Le tombeau de Cléopâtre. Really, this lovely performance does full justice to Schmitt’s finely wrought score.

Le Palais hanté, subtitled Étude symphonique pour Le Palais hanté d’Edgar Poë, makes for a pleasing filler. I dismissed the piece as ‘mildly diverting, nothing more’ when I reviewed Tortelier’s account. It’s a mark of Falletta’s musical wizardry that it now seems rather more than that. I suspect the combination of fine playing and first-rate engineering is a bonus here. Ultimately, though, Falletta is the heroine of the hour; on the basis of this fabulous new album I’d very much like to hear her tackle more Schmitt, Psaume 47 especially; we badly need a new recording of that masterpiece.

Quietly sensational Schmitt, superbly recorded; nothing short of a revelation.

Dan Morgan
twitter.com/mahlerei






 



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