The catalog of music composed by Florent Schmitt contains numerous chamber works. Among them are three large-scale compositions for string ensemble: the Trio, Op. 105, the Quartet, Op. 112, and the Piano Quintet, Op. 51.
The Piano Quintet was the first of these three pieces to be created; Schmitt worked on the score for six years between 1902 and 1908, whereas the other two works would come along in the 1940s.
It is also the longest of these three chamber pieces, lasting nearly an hour’s length of time. The outer two movements last over 20 minutes each, while the slow middle movement clocks in at around 14 minutes.
Schmitt dedicated this monumental chamber work to his teacher and mentor, Gabriel Fauré. Its premiere performance was held on March 26, 1909, performed by the Fermin Touche Quartet with Maurice Dumesnil at the piano.
The long gestation period of the Piano Quintet reflected the fact that it was the work of an artist who was on the path to full maturity. Not only that, it was the first time the composer had created a piece of chamber music for forces larger than two players.
Musicologist Caroline Waight has noted that Schmitt’s Piano Quintet was well-received by the critics and audiences at the time of its premiere. Indeed, along with the Psaume XLVII and La Tragédie de Salomé, the Quintet helped establish Schmitt’s name as a major composer on the international music scene.
Moreover, the Piano Quintet was awarded First Prize in the Société des compositeurs de musique’s 1909 competition — an award that was accompanied by a payment of 500 francs to the composer.
Here is how Waight characterizes Schmitt’s music in the Quintet:
“Almost orchestral in score, the work strains at the boundaries of its form, encompassing an extraordinary range of textures and emotions, and containing a wealth of melody.”
Similarly, the musicologist Michel Fleury considers the Piano Quintet to be the “absolute apex” in the progression of piano quintets written by French composers from the time of César Franck and proceeding on to Vincent d’Indy, Camille Saint-Saens, Louis Vierne. Charles Koechlin, Gabriel Pierné and others.
Fleury has written of the Piano Quintet:
“Its luxuriant harmony, its rhythmic dynamism and its melodic profusion are very representative of the composer … The Quintet goes through all the nuances of feelings, from tenderness to the most savage violence, from nostalgia to the shores of despair, from voluptuousness to the most fanciful irony. It closes with an energetic and optimistic affirmation of volition, action — and Dionysian joy.”
In the process of achieving such heights with alternating stormy sequences and ethereal reveries — and a passionate energy throughout — the piano part in particular requires a first-rate performer who is capable of playing textures so thick that some passages in the score are written over four staves.
The Piano Quintet was one of the first of Schmitt’s compositions to “travel extensively” to places outside of France. It was performed in the United Kingdom on numerous occasions, with the composer himself playing the challenging piano part in several of the performances into the 1930s, and the English pianist Kathleen Long doing the honors in later performances in the 1940s.
The first English performance of the Piano Quintet, which happened in 1911, did not feature the composer as pianist. Instead, it was Maurice Dumesnil playing alongside the Parisian Quartet. The following comments about it were published in the February 1, 1911 issue of The Musical Times:
The Quintet is an appealing work of great elaboration and length — and a corresponding wealth of ideas. Its harmonies are advanced without being labored or uncouth, and the workmanship is masterly.”
The first of Florent Schmitt’s own appearances in England playing the Piano Quintet happened in December 1916 in the middle of World War I. Recently mustered out of the French armed forces, the composer traveled to London for two performances, joined by an esteemed group of string players including the refugee Belgian violinist-conductor Désiré Defauw as well as violist Lionel Tertis.
The Quintet was also presented in America in its early years, including at a Society of the Friends of Music subscription concert at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York City on February 1, 1914. The performers included violinists Edouard Dethier and Doval Sanders, violist Samuel Lifschey, cellist Paul Kefer and piasnit Gaston Dethier.
In February 1920, the Boston Quartet (made up of violinists Joseph di Natale and Robert Gunderson, violist Vladimir Berlin, cellist Alma la Palme and pianist Hans Ebell) performed the Piano Quintet in that city’s Steinert Hall, while a presentation of the Quintet also happened in October 1921 at the Scottish Rite Hall in San Francisco.
And in 1932, Florent Schmitt himself played the piano part in a performance of the piece at Town Hall in New York City, part of an all-Schmitt concert organized by the League of Composers during Schmitt’s only trip to America. New York Times music critic Olin Downes was present at that performance and wrote the following words about it, as published in the Times’ November 28, 1932 edition:
“The Florent Schmitt Piano Quintet has been played from time to time in this country. It has been well-received, and then followed by other modern works scored in the same manner. Now it is 1932. The Quintet, according to the date of its publication, is virtually a quarter of a century old, but last night an audience of modernists applauded it to the echo and found it good and significant and stimulating.
This work has a fine structure and substance. Sometimes it shows a trace of Debussyan influence — or even Fauré or Chabrier — passing straws indicating the way the wind of the period of the Quintet was blowing. But this is more than music of a day — or a year, either; this was proved last night by an audience of sophisticates. With almost unanimity the work was acclaimed, and the talk in the corridors was all in its favor. So pass the years — and so endure the qualities of real music.
The work is symphonic and also romantic. It is a pianist’s quintet — the piano having a role that is brilliant and frequently orchestral. The [string] parts are, however, happily conceived — even if the quartet is employed more frequently in mass, en bloc, than polyphonically. In this respect the score passes the bounds of chamber music and has the coarser proportions of an orchestral partition.”
As in its reception in New York in 1932, the music has made a strong impression wherever it was played. Writing about the piece in his 1932 book Around Music, the British composer Kaikhosru Sorabji was effusive in his praise:
“The Florent Schmitt Piano Quintet is … I am tempted to say, the greatest piece of chamber music ever written in France. In magnificence and splendor I do not know any chamber work to compare with it. It has much of the characteristics of Byzantine architecture, glowing with gold and polychromatic mosaics. The wide, arching curves of its fine themes and its large spaciousness of style are singularly — even uniquely — remote from the smallness, the short-windedness and lack of stamina that is so typical of most modern French music.”
In France, the Piano Quintet has been championed over the years by a number of ensembles — notably the Loewenguth Quartet, which played the work in recital well into the 1960s, including a 1952 performance at the Nuits de Sceaux Festival where, joined by Jean Hubeau at the piano, the piece shared billing with one of the Fauré quintets. The last time this ensemble presented the work was in May 1963, with Françoise Doreau as the featured pianist.
I am aware of three complete recordings that have been made of the Quintet. The first of these was recorded in 1981 and features the Berne Quartet (violinists Alexander van Wijnkoop and Christine Ragaz, violist Henrik Crafoord and cellist Walter Grimmer) with Werner Bärtschi on the piano.
Its release was a major recording event at the time, giving listeners their first chance ever to hear the full work.
More than 25 years would elapse before the other two recordings were made — both of them recorded in 2008 and released within mere months of each other.
One of these recordings, released on the Timpani label and featuring the Stanislas Quartet (violinists Laurent Causse and Bertrand Menut, violist Paul Fenton and cellist Jean de Spengler) with Christian Ivaldi on the piano, is quite similar in interpretation to the Bärtschi/Berne recording.
The third recording, broader and more expansive in style, has been released on the NAXOS label and features the Solisten-Ensemble Berlin (Matthias Wollong and Petra Schwieger on violin, violist Ulrich Knörzer and cellist Andreas Grünkorn) with pianist Birgitta Wollenweber.
My personal tastes go more to the Berne/Bärtschi and Stanislas/Ivaldi interpretations, although the NAXOS performance has also received positive reviews from music critics.
Interestingly, several recordings of the second movement of the Piano Quintet were made decades before the complete work. And indeed, some listeners consider this middle movement (marked Lent) to be the emotional high-point of the entire composition.
Schmitt’s pupil and fellow-composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud described the beginning of the second movement as reflecting “the scents of the evening and bells sounding on the horizon,” following which “a murmuring tide slowly rises and bears us towards the realms of grief” … before subsiding into a poignant sadness as the movement ends.
The first recording of this movement, waxed by Pathé-Marconi back in 1935, features Florent Schmitt on the piano, joined by the Calvet Quartet. It’s a very moving interpretation, which may explain its near-constant availability in the decades since – first on 78-rpm records, then on LP, and today on CD.
Another interesting bonus that’s part of this historical recording is a short “vocal autograph” featuring the composer himself commenting on the music. Schmitt’s remarks come at the end of the movement … and they’ve been included in all but one of the various releases of this recording over the decades.
A second recording of the slow movement dates from 1969 and features members of the Tokyo-based Mari Iwamoto String Quartet along with pianist Shozo Tsubota, distinguished professor of piano at Tokyo University of the Arts. That recording remains available today and can be purchased from several Japanese-based online music sources such as this one.
The Piano Quintet has managed to make some headway in the recital hall in recent decades, as well. In 1980 the Quatuor Margand, joined by pianist Leslie Wright (who, interestingly enough, was also Ecuador’s longtime cultural attaché in Paris), presented the piece in a performance that was broadcast over French Radio. (The Margand players have also presented Schmitt’s challenging String Quartet in recital.)
In 1989 a performance of the piece was done by the Music Group of London and broadcast over BBC Radio 3. That performance, which featured violinists Frances Mason and Andrew Watkinson, violist Christopher Wellington, cellist Eileen Croxford and pianist David Parkhouse, has been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard here while following along with the score, thanks to George ‘Nick’ Gianopoulos’ estimable music channel.
Other performances have included the Quatuor Arcana in 1989, joined Pascal Le Corre, a pianist who has made critically acclaimed recordings of several of Schmitt’s sets of solo piano music, as well as the Quatuor Anton in 1993, joined by pianist Denis Pascal.
More recently, The Piano Quintet was featured in a French music festival in 2010 at the Palazzetto Bru Zane in Venice, Italy. Violinists Philippe Bernhard and Loic Rio, violist Laurent Marfaing, and cellist François Kieffer were joined by pianist Jean-Frédéric Neuburger in a passionate interpretation that was a major highlight of the 2010 festival.
At the time of the festival, the performers were interviewed about the music. That interview – accompanied by musical excerpts from the first and second movements of the Quintet – has been uploaded on YouTube. The 7-minute clip includes some very interesting observations from the musicians and is well-worth watching.
In August 2011, the Quintet was presented at the Hortus Festival in the Netherlands, performed by the Hortus Ensemble (violinists Eva Stegeman and Jellantsje de Vries, violist Heleen Hulst, cellist Jan Insinger and pianist Maarten van Veen). That live performance can be heard in its entirety here.
And in fall 2018, the Piano Quintet was performed by the Berne Philharmonic String Quartet and pianist Kit Armstrong at Armstrong’s music center in Hirson, France.
Not all critics have been so admiring of the Piano Quintet; one who had dismissive things to say was Anne Midgette, who wrote this in the New York Times after hearing a performance of the music by the Colorado Quartet and pianist Melvin Chen at the Bard Music Festival in August 2001:
“The last of today’s three concerts – seven hours of music – culminated in a piano quintet that lasted a full hour, which may have relieved many people in the audience of the need ever again to hear the music of Florent Schmitt.”
But those sentiments would seem to be a distinct minority. To judge for yourself, reserve ample time for listening … give the composition a good hearing … and then post a comment here about your impressions of the music.
Update (11/15/20): The Canada-based label St-Laurent Studio has just released a radio broadcast performance of Florent Schmitt’s Piano Quintet — one that features the Loewenguth Quartet along with pianist Jean Doyen. The performance dates from 1956.
The Loewenguth musicians championed this music over several decades — including taking the piece on tour to other countries — so it is only fitting that this 1956 performance be made available as part of a 2-CD set that also includes a Loewenguth radio broadcast of Schmitt’s 1948 String Quartet. The recording is available for purchase from the St-Laurent Studio website, and the label ships worldwide.