The catalog of music composed by Florent Schmitt contains numerous chamber works. Among them are three large-scale compositions for string ensemble: a Trio, a Quartet, and the Piano Quintet, Op. 51.
The Quintet was the first of these three pieces to be composed – Schmitt worked on the score for six years between 1902 and 1908.
It’s also the longest of these three chamber pieces, lasting nearly an hour’s 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.
Musicologist Caroline Waight has written 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 Parisian music scene.
Here’s 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 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.”
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 received positive reviews from music critics, and for a time was available for audition in its entirety on YouTube.
Interestingly, a recording of the second movement of the Piano Quintet was actually made decades before the complete work. Some listeners consider this middle movement (marked Lent) to be the emotional high-point of the entire composition.
Indeed, 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.
This recording, waxed by Pathé-Marconi back in 1935, features Florent Schmitt himself 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 of this 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.
In recent years, the Piano Quintet has begun to make more headway in the recital hall. For example, it 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 Quintet’s first and second movements – has been uploaded on YouTube. The 7-minute news clip includes some very interesting observations from the musicians and is well-worth a hearing.
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 at Bard College 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 in the minority. So that you can judge for yourself, you can listen to tracks from the Solisten-Ensemble Berlin recording, courtesy of the NAXOS classical music site.
Even better, you can listen to the entire first movement while following along with the score, thanks to this YouTube upload which has carefully “choreographed” the musical performance to the printed score.
Reserve yourself ample time for listening … give the composition a good hearing … and then post a comment here about your impressions of the music.