Notes and Editorial Reviews
SCHMITT Le Petit Elfe Ferme-l’Oeil: Ballet1. Introit, Récit et Congé2 • Jacques Mercier, cond; 1Aline Martin (mez); 2Henri Demarquette (vc); O Natl de Lorraine • TIMPANI 1212 (51:10)
Although Florent Schmitt (1870–1958) can be thought of as a member of the Impressionist generation
(Debussy was eight years his senior, Ravel five years younger), in many respects he can also be seen as a kind of anti-Impressionist due to his close ties to the German school of Strauss, and the Russians such as Rimsky-Korsakov and even Scriabin and early Stravinsky. Even though he made use of the harmonic and textural devices of his French contemporaries (the parallels with the three-years-older Koechlin could also be interesting), delicacy and nuance were only a couple of his intermittent concerns as he meticulously constructed his enormous orchestral machines, full of tidal surges, anticipatory dread, and continuously unresolved climaxes.
Although Schmitt wrote several grand-scale chamber music masterpieces such as the piano quintet, the string quartet, and the string trio as well as much music for piano duo, Schmitt’s heart—even in his works for small ensembles—was always drawn to the spectacle and excess of a theatrical ambience as seen in his mastery of the “symphonic ballet,” as documented in this first recording of his 1923 orchestral expansion of an earlier duo-piano suite of seven pieces inspired by Hans Christian Andersen stories. These have been recorded several times, including a recent Timpani release; this writer has a fond recollection of the Robert and Gaby Casadesus vinyl recorded on Columbia, which were paired with the Three Rhapsodies (also later orchestrated by the composer). Schmitt was especially fond of transforming his keyboard works into orchestral showpieces, and in this case he added a prelude and brief mezzo solo in the sixth movement, turning the 20-minute original miniatures into a 40-minute orchestral fresco. Unlike Ravel’s relatively understated Mother Goose Suite (also based on a keyboard original), Schmitt’s boy-protagonist has a wild and sumptuous dream life. This is borne out by the dense and vivid orchestration conceived in the same vein and on the same scale as his Salomé, Salâmmbo, and Antony et Cléopatre. But, unlike these epic-erotic masterworks, the child-like focus seems to have brought out Schmitt’s more tenderly melodic propensities, thus endowing the score with quite a few good tunes.
Filling out his release is another premiere recording of Schmitt’s approximation of a cello concerto, written in 1949 for Andre Navarra—Introit, Récit et Congé. My Parisian mother used the word “congé” as an equivalent for a short vacation or day off, while my French dictionary also mentions “playdate.” In any case, although the soloist is called upon at times for virtuoso display, Schmitt was never that given to concertante works without an accompanying programmatic occasion. (The closest he came to a “concerto” is the coruscating Sinfonia Concertante which he premiered as piano soloist in 1930 with the BSO under Koussevitzky.) In the present single-movement 13-minute work, the orchestra remains the star in Schmitt’s later more impersonal and manipulative manner, which was given its apotheosis almost 10 years later in his astonishing final work, the Second Symphony of 1958, premiered by Charles Munch in the composer’s presence just a few days before his passing.
Production and performance values measure up to the high standards established time and again in recent years by France’s now premier label, Timpani, which can be accurately regarded as the French equivalent of Chandos in all respects. No Schmitt groupie can survive without this disk.
FANFARE: Paul A. Snook
Florent Schmitt really, really liked Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. He liked it so much that he wrote his own piano suite based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fable about the little elf that puts children to sleep and sends them magical dreams. When Ravel orchestrated his suite, then added interludes to turn it into a full-fledged ballet, so did Schmitt, and “Le Petit Elfe Ferme-l’Oeil” is the result. Schmitt pays homage to his inspiration by actually quoting the “Laideronette” tableau from Ravel’s ballet towards the end, and the scoring is suitably enchanting, if naturally heavier in texture than Ravel managed. There’s also a lovely lullaby woven into the plot line, and it’s very nicely sung by mezzo Aline Martin. This work is a real find, especially as presented here, played with plenty of color and finesse by the Lorraine National Orchestra under Jacques Mercier.
Intoit, Récit et Congé is yet another one of those short concertante pieces (thirteen minutes) that has no chance of being performed in concert on account of its brevity and difficulty. Composed for André Navarra, the piece consists of fiendishly wild outer episodes enfolding an absolutely gorgeous slow cantabile. This is more the Schmitt we know from such works as The Tragedy of Salome: punchy, densely textured, with lush, harmonically exotic lyrical passages. How the soloist penetrates the busy accompaniment at all is something of a miracle, but Henri Demarquette plays the piece very well indeed, and like the ballet this is a piece that deserves a listen. The sonics in both works are uniformly excellent. Schmitt’s music deserves more attention than it gets; perhaps his (well-earned) reputation as a Nazi sympathizer still dogs him, but I have yet to hear a disc of his music that’s not worth your time.
-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Le petit elfe ferme-l'oeil, Op. 73 by Florent Schmitt
Aline Martin (Mezzo Soprano)
Lorraine National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Intoit, Récit et Congé by Florent Schmitt
Henri Demarquette (Cello)
Lorraine National Orchestra
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