There is a vast trove of music for solo and duo-piano, and some of these are the beneficiary of fine recordings made recently by pianists like Vincent Larderet, Andrey Kasparov, Oksana Lutsyshyn and Leslie de’Ath.
But there are also some wonderful works for chamber ensembles featuring intriguing combinations of instruments. In these pieces, one finds a distinctly “French” ambiance that befits a composer who studied with the great French master Gabriel Fauré (and who Schmitt considered a mentor).
One of these works is the Sonatine en trio, Opus 85, a work Schmitt composed in 1935. It’s a charming piece that takes the listener through a number of different moods in four contrasting movements.
Originally conceived as a work for flute, clarinet and harpsichord, it was in that form that the composition was premiered in 1935 at the Triton Theatre, with Corradina Mola, the work’s dedicatee, performing on the harpsichord.
This piece is one I’ve loved ever since hearing it for the first time back in 1978, in a Live from Lincoln Center performance featuring a stellar group of musicians (Paula Robison on flute, Gervase de Peyer on clarinet and Charles Wadsworth on the harpsichord). These same musicians also presented the piece at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC (January 14, 1977).
The Sonatine en trio is a charming work, representing Florent Schmitt at his most delicate and playful. Commenting on the music, the conductor JoAnn Falletta has remarked that it will surprise listeners as “quite a different side of the composer — and uttery delightful.”
None of the four movements in the Sonatine lasts more than three minutes, yet each is memorable in its own special way. The third movement, titled Très Lent, is sometimes performed separately and has even been recorded that way. In this movement in particular, the influence of Fauré is clearly evident.
Ever resourceful, Schmitt prepared several subsequent editions of the Sonatine en trio featuring different combinations of instruments. The version for violin, cello and piano, prepared by the composer in in 1936 and premiered that year at the Concerts Cortot in Paris, is very pleasing — but it is performed very rarely and has been recorded commercially just once, back in the 1980s for the Cybelia label. That recording has been uploaded to George ‘Nick’ Gianopoulos’ YouTube music channel along with the score, and can be heard here while following along with the musical notation.
Another of the composer’s arrangements of this music retains the original flute and clarinet but employs a piano in lieu of the harpsichord. It is the flute/clarinet/piano version that can be sampled on YouTube, in a fine rendition performed by Emmanuel Pahud on the flute, Paul Meyer on the clarinet and Eric Le Sage on piano.
Beyond Florent Schmitt’s own arrangements of the Sonatine, other musicians have contributed their own “take” on this insouciant piece. One such example is an arrangement for flute, viola and piano that was prepared by violist Rudolf Sulzenbacher in the mid-1990s. He was joined by flautist Jérôme van Wynsberge and pianist Magali Goimard in recording this arrangement for release on the Quantum label, coupled with other transcriptions of music by Gabriel Pierné, Jacques Ibert and Francis Poulenc.
If you find the Sonatine en trio as engaging as I think you will, you’ll want to investigate more works by Schmitt in a similar vein. One of the best of these is the whimsical Suite en rocaille, Opus 84 for flute, violin, viola, cello and harp. Composed at nearly the same time as the Sonatine, it’s another work of sheer magic, closely related to its “cousin” the Introduction & Allegro by Maurice Ravel.
Both the Schmitt and Ravel works were composed for Pierre Jamet’s Quintette instrumental de Paris, and those performers made the first commercial recording of the Suite en rocaille in the late 1930s. The recording was reissued on CD in 2008, appearing on the Timpani label as part of a 2-CD set featuring all of the commercial recordings made by the Pierre Jamet’s Quintet, encompassing works by eight French composers.
A concert performance of the Suite en rocaille, played by the Tournier Quintet, a Spanish ensemble, has been uploaded to YouTube. It’s a fresh and lively reading.
Also worth hearing is a 1957 performance performed at the Strasbourg Festival, featuring classical superstars Jean-Pierre Rampal on flute and Lily Laskine on the harp, along with violinist Robert Gendre, violist Colette Lequien and cellist Robert Bex.
The Strasbourg performance is available from St-Laurent Studio in a double-CD set issued as part of its Raretés françaises series of recordings — a release that also includes chamber works by Debussy, Pierné, Roussel, Ibert, Poulenc, Jean Françaix and Henri Martelli that were also presented at the same Strasbourg concert.
In addition to historical and live performances, one of the handful of commercial recordings of this engaging suite is also available to hear on the Gianopoulos music channel on YouTube, presented along with the score.
A final observation: These works are the polar opposites of the astringent sounds we hear in Schmitt’s Symphonie Concertante for Piano & Orchestra, although they were composed at nearly the same time.
It proves yet again the amazing versatility and inventiveness of this composer.