FLORENT SCHMITT: Complete Original Works for Piano Duet and Duo, Vol. I = Trois Rapsodies, Op. 53; Sept pieces, Op. 15 for piano, 4-hands; Rhapsodie Parisienne for piano 4-hands – The Invencia Piano Duo – Grand Piano GP621, 54:14 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

This first of four volumes (rec. 3-5 January 2010 and 3 June 2011) celebrates the keyboard art of Florent Schmitt (1870-1958), a pupil of composers Massenet and Faure, who along with Debussy and Ravel, established a novel tradition in French music. Schmitt evinces humor, panache, and contrapuntal mastery in his compositions, the famous of which is his La Tragedie de Salome. The program by the Ivencia Piano Duo – Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn – opens with Trois rhapsodies, Op. 53 (1904), a work conceived in the Romantic tradition of the picture-post-card in national character: Francaise, Polonaise, and Viennoise. The first portrait, that of France, emanates a Gallic spirit in spite of the often thick counterpoint of the piano duet. Robert and Gaby Casadesus made the piece memorable in 1956 on Columbia LP.

The longest of the set, the Polonaise, treads rather slowly and meditatively, its glitter wafting Chopin’s melancholy. Some of the harmonies wax into modal realms while the textures suggest balletic combinations, a la Satie. Occasionally, the two keyboards move into opposing meters, a rather audacious move that prefigures Stravinsky and Bartok. The Viennese element begins with an almost jazzy gesture; then it reluctantly yields up its sprit to the likes of the Strauss family, although in a rather mocking tone that prefigures Ravel’s La Valse. Gaiety and surface glitter abound in the various swirls and figurations, more rhythmic than melodic. The sense of wry wit continues into the final pages, whose delayed coda has a series of stretti invested that make way for decisive final cadence.

The 1899 Sept pieces, Op. 15 represent Schmitt’s first large-scale cycle for piano duet, rather in the style of Robert Schumann. The opening Somnolence offers a pattern reminiscent of parlando Debussy cross-fertilized by Beethoven slow movement from the Pathetique Sonata. Souvenir de Ribeaupierre celebrates a medieval castle with the plainchant and gentle contrapuntal innocence we often find in Grieg and Faure’s Dolly Suite. The technical demands for the performers of Scintillement combines syncopated elements of Chabrier and Bizet’s Jeux d’infantsSouhaits de jeune fille (A Young Girl’s Wishes) takes its cue from Debussy, but more pearly and magical. Promenade a l’etang (A Walk by the Pool) suggests Chopin’s harmonic world, although the cognoscenti know that this subject has a luscious piece by Loeffler as well. Some influence of Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau intrudes here, too. The performance by The Ivencia Duo casts haunting ripples into the water. The ternary sixth piece, Fete septentrionale, has an impish vitality, a sly dance we might attribute to Chabrier or Gottschalk, if he were in a European frame of mind. The last of the set, the serene Traversee heureuse (A Happy Crossing), might hint at the exoticism of Borodin, whom the French consistently admire.

The Rhapsodie parisienne (1900) opens with a bold gesture, almost in the manner of Liszt, and its grand rhetoric belies the fact that Schmitt kept the piece unpublished, despite his intention to orchestrate it. The American premier of the piece came via the Ivencia Duo in Culpeper, Virginia, 18 March 2011. The insistent writing and heavy stretti owe debts to Chabrier, but the rhythmic energy surpasses that composer and moves into Koechlin and Stravinsky. The City of Light has its ghostly moments in this intricately wrought and glittering piece, certainly adumbrating Ravel’s La Valse. A real tour de force, the grand sweep of the finale surely brings down the house, if played in concert.

Both the Sept Pieces and the Rhapsodie parisienne receive their world premier recordings on this disc. As commentator Jerry E. Rife claims, this “music deserves rediscovery – a noble goal of these important recordings.”

—Gary Lemco