Over his seven decades-long composing career, Florent Schmitt would pen three concertante works for cello.
The early Chant élégiaque (from 1899-1903) seems clearly influenced by Schmitt’s teacher and mentor, Gabriel Fauré, who had composed his own Elegy for Cello & Orchestra in the 1880s. The 1932 Final for Cello & Orchestra comes from Schmitt’s middle period of creativity – a piece that still awaits its first recording.
But it’s Schmitt’s last cello concertante work that is the most substantive – and the most musically rewarding. It’s the Introït, récit et congé, Opus 113, composed in 1948 for the French cellist André Navarra (1911-1988).
At the time, André Navarra was one of the most famous cellists in the world, with a decades-long solo and chamber-music career already behind him. Having taken several years away from performing during World War II (during which time he served in the French infantry), Navarra had recently resumed concertizing worldwide, along with taking up a teaching position at the Paris Conservatoire.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Navarra was to commission new works from a number of Fracophone composers including Jacques Ibert, Arthur Honegger, André Jolivet, Claude Pascal — and Florent Schmitt. The skill and virtuosity of the cellist gave Schmitt a golden opportunity to compose a highly dramatic piece of music that exploited the most dazzling attributes of the instrument.
From reading the composer’s own words about the music, it is clear what he had in mind:
“… The prelude, andante and finale [are] all three linked so as not to let the performer catch his breath, although in no way would he ask to breathe – especially if he had the good fortune to be named André Navarra.”
The Introït, récit et congé was given its first performance in December 1951 by Navarra with the Colonne Concerts Orchestra under the direction of Paul Paray. Maestro Paray was the conductor who premiered more orchestral works of the composer than anyone else.
Present at the premiere was René Dumesnil, music critic of the newspaper Le Monde. His impressions of the piece and the performance were set down in a column published in that magazine:
“The work is neither a concerto nor a suite, but rather a poem for cello and orchestra. The composer did not fail to exploit all the resources of the principal instrument and — without seeming to do it on purpose — offered André Navarra all the technical difficulties that a mischievous composer can propose to a virtuoso. Of course, Navarra thwarts such malice without even appearing to suspect them …
The main thematic elements of the work are set out in the Introït, which itself is divided into three short sections: lively-slow-lively. The Récit is a lento of great freedom, with two lyrical ideas of a singularly moving elevation and sensitivity. The Congé is an animato of ternary rhythm …
There is nothing superfluous in this composition … whose fullness and variety are due as much to the quality of the musical ideas as to the sumptuousness of the form. The richness of such music is part of its substance — and inseparable from it.”
A broadcast performance from several years later (June 1955) featuring the same soloist in a brilliant reading — this time with the ORTF conducted by Gaston Poulet — has been preserved and is available to hear, courtesy of SoundCloud.
It appears that few cellists followed in Navarra’s footsteps in performing the piece. French radio broadcast several performances — one in 1966 in Alfred Desenclos’ arrangement of the piece for cello and piano that featured cellist Sylvette Milliot with Lily Bienvenu on piano. In more recent times, a July 1991 performance by cellist Anne Gastinel with the Orchestre National de l’Ile de France conducted by Jacques Mercier was also broadcast over Radio-France.
But more than 60 years would go by until Introït, récit et congé would finally receive its premiere commercial recording, made in 2013 by cellist Henri Demarquette with the Orchestre National de Lorraine conducted by Jacques Mercier, a modern-day evangelist for Schmitt’s music who had led the Gastinel performance a dozen years before. The recording was released in early 2014 on the Timpani label, and is now available to hear on YouTube.
Listening to this recording makes it abundantly clear that the wait was worth it. In the fine interpretation by Messrs. Demarquette and Mercier, we get to hear just how impressive the music really is.
It makes it easy to understand why, in 2011, music critic and editor of MusicWeb International, Rob Barnett, exclaimed that “the most direly needed [Schmitt premiere] recording is his later masterpiece for cello and orchestra, the Introït, récit et congé. How long, O Lord?”
In fact, this is a relatively brief cello concertante composition, clocking in at under 15 minutes. But in this short duration, the composer takes us on an incredible sound journey involving a large roster of players (including triple wind parts, extensive brass and a battery of percussion) with the cello and orchestral forces alternating between exuberant dance rhythms and poignant melodic interludes.
In the middle section (Récit), the accent is on lyricism accompanied by lush harmonies that bring to mind the amorous effusions of other Schmitt compositions going back decades – all the way to the Psaume XLVII of 1904.
But make no mistake: This is contemporary music, punctuated by spikey rhythms and changing meters – and culminating in a feverish coda.
Cellist Henri Demarquette – who has made a name for himself championing neglected 20th Century cello concertante works of composers such as Guy Ropartz, Jean Cras, Maurice Emmanuel and Henri Dutilleux – proves himself a worthy successor to the Navarra tradition of “muscular romanticism”: He tears into the score in a way that will leave many listeners breathless.
Cellists everywhere should take note of this music. Its rediscovery proves that as a showpiece of cello pyrotechnics, it has few equals. Even better, the music itself is fresh, interesting and inventive throughout.
One other thing bears noting: The Introït, récit et congé hardly seems the work of a musician who was nearly 80 years old at the time of its composition!
Update (2/25/15): This landmark recording received the prestigious Diapason d’Or Award for best orchestral recording of 2014. At the time of the awards ceremony, Henri Demarquette spoke on camera about the music of Florent Schmitt. His insightful comments can be viewed here.