Elegance and Class: Florent Schmitt’s Quartet Pour presque tous les temps (1956)

Ensemble Martinu (Rendezvous + Florent Schmitt)

The Ensemble Martinu’s 2008 recording of Florent Schmitt’s quartet Pour presque tous les temps is stunning.

One of the final works created by the French composer Florent Schmitt was a quartet he titled Pour presque tous les temps. It is one of the last numbered compositions in Schmitt’s entire output (#134 out of a total of 138 opus numbers) and was completed in 1956, two years before the composer’s death.

Schmitt was known to use plays-on-words for the titles of some of his compositions.  Thus, we have pieces like Hasards (“Chances”) … Suite sans esprit de suite (“Suite that isn’t in the Style of a Suite”) … Le Clavecin obtempérant (“The Ill-Tempered Clavichord”) … Suite en rocaille (“Suite on-the-Rocks”) … and in the case of the Opus 134, “Quartet for Almost All the Time.”

Some musicologists have surmised that Schmitt was doing a riff on Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”), which was composed in 1941 during Messiaen’s wartime captivity in Germany.

Florent Schmitt Andre Aaron Bilis 1956

A charcoal drawing of Florent Schmitt by the artist André Aaron Bilis, created the same year as Pour presque tous les temps.

But I find this cheeky connection rather unlikely because of the substantial differences in the scope and length of the two works.  (Messiaen’s quartet is fully 50 minutes long, whereas Schmitt’s piece is far shorter — and of a vastly different musical character.)

Schmitt’s quartet is scored for flute, violin, cello and piano.  The dedication on the manuscript is to the Quatuor Instrumental de Paris, and this ensemble, made up of flautist Yanet Puech, violinist Janine Volant-Panel, cellist Mireille Reculard and pianist Françoise Petit, gave the premiere performance of the work as well.

Taken together, the quartet’s four movements clock in at fewer than 11 minutes, with all but the third movement lasting fewer than three minutes each.

  1.  Alerte
  2. Au clair de la R – IV
  3. Lent mais non languide
  4. Vif

What I find delightfully surprising is how fresh and vigorous the music sounds – it hardly seems the work of a composer who was, by then, well into his ninth decade.

The musical idiom is “agreeably modern” – even “neo-classical” – but with a big measure of impressionistic flavor overlaid on it. In fact, the music sounds far more lush than similarly scored pieces by other composers like Albert Roussel, Darius Milhaud and Jacques Ibert.

In the end, this is music that remains true to Schmitt’s Romantic inclinations.

Another characteristic of this music is this:  It never grows old.  I find that with each additional hearing, fascinating new musical elements come to the fore.  Because of this, I consider Pour presque tous les temps to be an “important” piece within its genre.

Florent Schmitt Pour presque tous les temps

First recording: A short-lived Parisian release.

Unfortunately, Pour presque tous les temps finds its way onto music programs only occasionally.  An online search reveals only three or four references to public performances of the score within the past several years – none of them happening in the United States.

Schmitt Pour presque tous les temps

First recording: The Quatuor Instrumental de Paris. in a short-lived private-issue pressing for the Paris-based arts organization Les Amis de la musique de chambre.

The situation is similar on recordings.  There was one made by the Quatuor Instrumental de Paris shortly after the work was premiered, but it was a limited-edition pressing distributed to members of Les Amis de la musique de chambre, a Paris-based arts organization — and the press run likely numbered in the low hundreds.

Florent Schmitt Pierre Wissmer

First recording in the digital era: The Marcal label’s 2006 release of Florent Schmitt’s late-career quartet Pour presque tous les temps.

To my knowledge, the piece has been recorded just two times since.  The earlier of the two recordings (from 2006, released on the Marcal label) features violinist Anne Werner-Fuchs, cellist Jean Barthe and flautist Frédéric Werner, along with Genevieve Ibanez on the piano.  It is coupled with chamber music by the Swiss composer Pierre Wissmer.

The Marcal recording is a fine one, as is a somewhat newer recording by the Ensemble Martinů, released in 2008 on the Cube Bohemia label in a CD that also contains music by other French composers (Ravel and Ibert) and several Czech composers (Martinů, Kurz and Riedlbauch).  The Cube Bohemia recording is polished and effective, performed by musicians who are clearly first-rate.

I heartily recommend either of these recordings to anyone curious to sample this highly engaging music.  Moreover, the music score and instrumental parts are available for viewing and downloading here.

Pour presque tous les temps is a piece that could certainly use more advocates.  I hope several other ensembles will choose to take it up soon – particularly in the United States.  Any takers?

_____________________

Schmitten ensemble at the 2014 Chamber Music Contest in New Zealand

The “Schmitten Ensemble” was a National Finalist in the 2014 NZCT Chamber Music Contest in New Zealand, performing Florent Schmitt’s quartet Pour presque tous les temps.

Update (9/2/14):  Pour presque tous les temps was performed by a student ensemble in the 2014 NZCT Chamber Music Contest put on by Chamber Music New Zealand.

The performance was played by the “Schmitten Ensemble,” one of six finalists out of more than 500 participating groups … and it has just been uploaded to YouTube.

You can view the performance here, played with freshness and vigor by four up-and-coming classical musicians.

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