Maestro Koussevitzky had commissioned Schmitt to write a piano concerto to commemorate the BSO’s 50th anniversary, a work he composed in 1931 and premiered with the orchestra in Boston on November 25, 1932. Schmitt played the challenging piano part himself.
This piece stands as a unique composition among the composer’s works. Carrying the opus number 82, it represents a clear break from the style of Schmitt’s earlier works – far more modern, even dissonant.
Moreover, it’s not a concerto in the conventional sense. Instead, the composer named it Symphonie Concertante. According to the musical essayist Benoit Deuteurtre, “Schmitt, who did not really appreciate the conventional dialogue between soloist and orchestra, preferred to merge the piano and orchestra.”
It’s an amazing piece of music. It is also less immediately “approachable” than most other works by the composer, and for some listeners the jagged harmonies and spikey rhythms will come as a surprise.
Indeed, at the time of its composition more than one person dubbed the piece the Symphonie déconcertante (“Disconcerting Symphony”) for precisely that reason.
But if you listen closely and allow yourself to become enveloped in the grand musical fresco that Schmitt has created, you’ll discover an inventiveness and brilliance that is tremendously rewarding on an emotional level.
Speaking for myself, I find new musical nuances every time I listen to this work, and I’m continually amazed at the rich palette of colors the composer conjures up in the orchestra: great blocks of sound that are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Jean-Christian Bonnet, a classical music connoisseur who is an evangelist on YouTube for French classical composers, is quite keen on the Symphonie Concertante, remarking that it is “a highly original work that sits at the crossroads of different influences – very modern in its style yet very romantic in its mood.” I agree completely with his assessment.
Like many of Schmitt’s scores, the Symphonie Concertante is fiendishly difficult for both the pianist and orchestra players. This fact may have conspired to keep it from becoming standard concerto repertoire, although we do know that a number of important conductors chose to program the work in the years following the Koussevitzky premiere including Désiré Defauw, Désiré Inghelbrecht, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Pierre Monteux and Paul Paray.
Even better for us, the one recording that’s ever been made of this music is mighty fine.
Recorded in 1993, it is a top-notch interpretation. The impressive Franco-Turkish pianist Huseyïn Sermet turns in a Herculean performance on the keyboard, and he’s given grand support from conductor David Robertson and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. (In fact, it’s one of the best recordings I’ve ever heard from this orchestra.)
Thanks to Jean-Christian Bonnet’s excellent and long-running YouTube music channel, you can sample all three movements of this extraordinary composition:
[For those who would prefer to listen to the composition without a break, the entire piece has been uploaded as a single track, courtesy of the Gunnar Frederikson YouTube channel. It’s available here.]
From the opening explosion of sound to the thrilling flourish at the end, you will not be disappointed — or so I think. But I welcome your comments and observations about the music.