“[Florent Schmitt’s four-hand piano works are] probably the finest in the whole modern repertoire. Sanely modern and splendidly constructed (they are a joy to play), his large output — in quality and inspiration — stands alone, and his genius finds full expression in this form.”
— Alec Rowley, English composer and keyboard artist
One of the most intriguing recent projects involving the music of French composer Florent Schmitt is the complete music for two pianos and piano duet, recorded by the Invencia Piano Duo (Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn).
These two volumes contain some of Schmitt’s most inventive piano four-hands music, and include several world premiere recordings:
- Musiques foraines, Op. 22 (Carnival Music)
- Trois pièces récréatives, Op. 37
- March for the 163rd Infantry Regiment, Op. 48, No. 2
Also included on these CDs is the first-ever recording of the Lied et Scherzo, Op. 54 in Schmitt’s version for piano four-hands, but played on two pianos in this recording. (The original version of the piece was composed in 1910 for double woodwind quintet, along with alternative versions prepared by the composer for horn and piano as well as cello and piano.)
In late September 2013, I had the opportunity to visit with Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn on the occasion of the Invencia Piano Duo’s 10th Anniversary gala concert at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA – a recital that featured the music of Florent Schmitt, Frédéric Chopin, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and the American composer-and-author Paul Bowles.
The two pianists were kind enough to share their thoughts and insights about their Florent Schmitt recording project as it comes to completion.
PLN: Tell me which pieces on Volumes 3 and 4 of the series are ones that you find particularly memorable?
AK: The Musique foraines is a major six-movement work composed between 1895 and 1902, and we are giving it its world-premiere recording. It’s very colorful – and also very cosmopolitan. You’ll hear as much ‘Morocco’ in the Belle Fathima movement as you do ‘Paris’ in the other movements.
To my mind, Schmitt took a cue from Georges Bizet in his Jeux d’Enfants — in that these are pieces written for two piano virtuosos.
Most four-hand music is not written that way; usually it’s composed for two ‘passable’ players who can make things happen together. Even Liszt’s four-hand music isn’t particularly virtuosic.
Schmitt picked up where Bizet left off. And yet the music is so deceptive that it doesn’t sound particularly difficult, leading some music critics to assert that the music doesn’t stretch the capabilities of the players. This is a complete misreading of the reality!
PLN: Does this mean that this music is likely to remain underperformed, even with its new-found visibility?
AK: I’m not particularly optimistic that it will take root in the four-hand repertoire. I wouldn’t be surprised if when many pianists try to play this music, after a few rehearsals they just give up.
OL: The same situation exists with a work like the Trois pièces récréatives. When we sight-read this music, it seemed so easy. But when you play it in concert, it’s very exposed. If you miss something, it’s a mess!
AK: That’s correct – it’s a lot about phrasing. I only realized the power of phrasing after I worked with the compositions of Schmitt that utilize just five set notes for the primo part. In addition to the Récréatives, those works are the Eight Short Pieces, Une Semaine du petit elfe Ferme-l’oeil, and Sur cinq notes.
All of these composition really require you to think hard about how to phrase the music properly so that it ‘works.’
Florent Schmitt wasn’t the only composer doing this, by the way. It was quite in vogue at that time; André Caplet wrote a suite based on five notes as well. It’s really invaluable pedagogical repertoire – and its purpose was noble indeed.
But here’s the thing: Schmitt goes way beyond pieces written just for teaching purposes. His are true concert pieces.
PLN: I’ve seen Bruno Belthoise and Claude Maillols’ YouTube performance of the final ‘Chinese Umbrella’ movement from Une Semaine du petit elfe Ferme-l’oeil. Watching the fingering ‘gymnastics’ required to play the two parts on one piano makes me realize just how difficult it must be to get it right.
AK: You are absolutely correct! Schmitt was very determined that the primo part would have nothing but those five notes, which makes it nearly impossible to play that final movement properly.
PLN: One of the pieces in Volume 4 that appeals to me as well is Humoresques, from 1911. What do you think of this composition?
Take the opening Marche militaire, for instance. It starts out very pompously – and then it just sort of fades away.
One wag suspected it was Schmitt’s way of characterizing the French military in satirical terms: the great disappearing army. Or French artillery tanks – you know, the ones with backup lights!
By the way – the Humoresques is another one of those compositions by Schmitt that is very pleasant and easy to listen to. But they’re full of polyrhythmic invention – and may be really brutal to perform and record as a result.
PLN: Volumes 3 and 4 contain several transcriptions: the 163rd Regiment March and the Lied et Scherzo. What are your thoughts on these pieces?
OL: The March is an interesting composition. When we read through it the first time, we didn’t take it too seriously. But with more study, we started to hear more harmonies that really piqued our interest. We ended up liking the work a lot.
AK: And the Lied et Scherzo is a phenomenal piece. In fact, it’s more challenging than some of the larger compositions Schmitt wrote for piano four-hands. It’s a piece that flows in different metric streams – at times much like the composer Elliott Carter, who of course came along much later.
I think Schmitt’s two-piano arrangement of the Lied et Scherzo is actually more successful than many of his other arrangements of this music. The advantage of the piano is that you don’t have to breathe to sustain a note, so you can take things as slowly or as fast as you wish. That adds a lot to this music.
PLN: The music world owes the Invencia Piano Duo a debt of gratitude for taking on such an ambitious project. Those of us who love Schmitt’s musical legacy thank you! Are there any final thoughts to share as you wrap up the series?
OL: I feel that Florent Schmitt is underestimated as a composer. He wrote some great music, and we are happy to introduce it so that people can become acquainted with it.
AK: We genuinely love this composer. And we are fortunate in that we could take the proper amount of time to study and practice these pieces. This music requires substantial effort to get it right.
We have a studio in our home with two pianos, so we could rehearse at all times. It may be that other pianists won’t be able to go “all out” like we’ve done.
And one other thing we’ve discovered about Schmitt’s music: There are always new insights to be learned! Just tonight, for instance, when we performed the Trois Rapsodies, all of a sudden some new musical details and nuances came to light – right in real-time, during the performance!
This is unusual enough that it’s absolutely thrilling to encounter when it happens — and it’s surely the mark of a true musical masterpiece.
But for duo-pianists in recital, this can also be very intimidating and forbidding — not to say disastrous for people without sufficient pianistic experience.
Thankfully for us, the Invencia Piano Duo has been an ideal ensemble to bring Florent Schmitt’s four-hand piano music treasures to the world.
We should be very grateful to them – as well as to Old Dominion University and the artistic management at NAXOS and the Grand Piano label – for giving us the opportunity to get to know this interesting and highly inventive collection of music.