SCHMITT: Psaume 47, Op. 38; La Tragédie de Salomé, Op. 50; Mirages, Op. 70: No. 2 “La Tragique Chevauchée” – Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano/ Chorus and Orchestra of the French Radio-Television/Igor Markevitch/ Orchestra of the French Radio-Television/ Pierre-Michel Le Conte (Salome)/ Orchestra of the French Radio-Television/ Pierre Dervaux (Mirages) – Forgotten Records FR 2149 (65:08) *****:
The musical repute of Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) survives almost entirely due to one work, his 1907 (rev. 1910) “orientalist” ballet La Tragédie de Salomé, which he radically abridged and rescored for public performance after its initial debut by Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht. If Schmitt’s music has not exported well, neither have his politics, which were decidedly fascist, even marking him as a collaborator during the Nazi occupation of France. He had been a member of Les Apaches, and he became an ardent supporter of the British composer Frederick Delius. His 138 numbered pieces traverse all forms of expression other than opera. His style borrows from French impressionism, namely Debussy, with traces of opulence in imitation of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. Of late, conductor JoAnn Falletta has taken up the cause of Florent Schmitt with good reception.
Forgotten Records restores live performances, 1953 and1957, led by gifted conductors at the helm of the French Radio-Television Orchestra. The reading of La Tragédie de Salomé derives from a live concert of 20 February 1957 in Paris, led by Pierre-Michel Le Conte (1921-2000), esteemed assistant to Eugène Bigot. Schmitt’s score consists of two sections, Prelude et danse des perles and Les Enchantments de la mer: Danse des éclairs and Danse de l’effroi. The score basks in lush, modal harmonies and ripe colors in the winds and strings. A chime-like texture suffuses the opening movement, a kind of French equivalent to the gambits we hear in Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairy-tale pieces. The sonority explodes in a rush of strings, harp, and brass, perhaps in reference to the Biblical pageantry at the court of Herod. As this first movement approaches its conclusion, the texture assumes a hazy, dark hue, only to initiate an animated, impetuous lyricism. The rhythmic modality borders on that of Ravel, quite insistent and martial when required. Still, conductor Le Conte has kept the musical line clean and clear, the energy transparent.
The second half extends the color contour already established, with a heavy emphasis on low winds and high strings. The similarity in sound to Debussy’s sea-study La Mer dominates, given that Schmitt concentrates here on the notion of natural illumination. The sea, however, harbors its own terrors, and these emerge as the music progresses, striking some fearsome brass and timpanic dissonances, the Dance of Fear. A long oboe solo invokes an interlude, again filled with haze and Eastern mystery. Brass declamations announce a violent eruption, some mortal struggle, in the manner of Richard Strauss. The conflicted energies relatuctantly subside but continue to exude menace. In the last minute of music, the strife has risen up once more, aiming to some fervent, fatal resolution. Given the familiar fate of the Biblical Salomé, we can imagine the last chords a declaration of Eternal Judgment.
Schmtt composed his massive Psaume 47 in 1904, and it received its concert début in 1906 under Inghelbrecht. Rather singular in the French repertory, the music is scored for large orchestra and chorus, soprano solo, and organ. Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky felt quite impressed, and other contemporary writers deemed Schmitt the “the new Berlioz.” The French poet and essayist Léon-Paul Fargue echoed the sentiments of many when he wrote of the Psaume: “A great crater of music is opening up.” Besides Inghelbrecht, another champion of this large canvas was French conductor Jean Martinon.
In this concert performance (27 April 1953) by Russian-French conductor Igor Markevitch (1912-1983), we hear soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (1915-2006) in the solo part, although the berries may well go to Choral Conductor Rene Alix for his visceral contribution to the panoramic effect. The Psalm proper celebrates the power and ascendancy of God, “For the Lord Most High is awesome, the great King over all the earth.” The potent, rising energies and intoxicated declamations resound with the idea that King David has brought the Ark of the Covenant to Mount Zion. The notion of God as Elohim conveys the communal spirit of His being. A purely instrumental sequence follows, to which the soprano, with harp and solo violin, responds in a spirit of rapt admiration. The orchestral color, impressionistic, reminds one of Dukas, Roussel, and Koechlin, though an ecstatic page or two might have been lifted from Debussy’s Sirènes. The organ makes its presence known in a mode close to Franck, but no less colored by Debussy. The clashing harmonies and rhythmic fluctuations may well have influenced Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps.
Over an extraordinarily sustained pedal, Schmitt then layers his dense sound in what could pass as religious contemplation and ardent devotion, a combination of majesty and awe. The French ORTF trumpet work proves exemplary, pushed as it is to a stressful emotional urgency. Typically, conductor Markevitch, whose own music delights in blazing neo-Classical sonority, remains tight on the reins of dazzling control. The music has assumed the martial aggression we might associate with Liszt, the heroic Russians, or the effulgent Berlioz. The confluence of opposed forces at the finale doubtless signifies God as the resolution to all apparent contraries. The audience reaction, as expected, borders on appreciative hysteria.
Schmitt composed Mirages in 1921 originally as a keyboard work, orchestrating the piece in 1925. The title refers to the story of Ivan Mazeppa, whose musical representation had been realized by Franz Liszt in his transcendental etude and symphonic poem. A chevauchée is a raiding, cavalry charge or “scorched earth” procedure meant to demoralize an enemy. Here, in this potently aggressive music, the conductor of 9 February 1956 is Pierre Dervaux (1917-1992). The ORTF battery section becomes heavily, percussively involved early, with a contrasting section that flows lyrically over the still active rhythmic impulse. The askew metrics help create an equally angular melodic line, interrupted by timpanic and clacking sounds that add to the ceaseless, even mischievous, turmoil. A snare drum introduces the elongated coda, with strings, horn, and harp active in an attempt to assuage the assault. But the rhythmic thrust reappears, only to die a sudden, abrupt death.