Within Florent Schmitt’s musical output are a half-dozen works that feature the violin. Perhaps the most significant of them is his Sonate libre, Op. 68, a work he composed in 1918-19 at Artiguemy, his country retreat in the Hautes-Pyrenees.
The formal title of the music is a real mouthful: Sonate libre en deux parties enchaînées, ad modem Clementis aquæ.
Evidently, Schmitt was using a play on words in the title – a reference to French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau’s newspaper L’Homme libre which later became known as L’Homme enchaîné.
The French novelist and musicologist Benoît Duteurtre has written that the Sonata’s title “perfectly sums up the spirit of a work that is at the same time magnificently constructed and astonishingly free in expression.”
He likens the style to Olivier Messiaen’s early works that were to come along a number of years later.
I agree with Duteurtre’s sentiments. This is a lengthy sonata: a half-hour long, two-movement work that exploits the full range of sonorities, with a magnificent rhapsodic interplay between the violin and piano in the first movement, titled Lent sans exagération.
In the second movement that follows without a break – titled Animé – we are treated to completely different atmospherics. The piano-only introduction tells us immediately that this is the Florent Schmitt of sass and irony, replete with nervous energy and spikey rhythms.
The two movements are vastly different … yet they do seem made for one another: two sides of the same mirror casting different reflections, as it were.
When the piece was premiered in Paris in March 1920 at a Société Musicale Indépendante concert (performed by violinist Hélène Léon and pianist Lucien Bellanger), it was warmly received.
The composer and critic Alexis Roland-Manuel wrote these words about the Sonate libre in his review of the concert:
“The music is so flowingly captivating and diverse that at no moment does our attention wander; it moves along with the freedom of running water, and its merit lies not only in the charm of its free and solid structure, but also in the fruitful search for a melodic, harmonic and instrumental style that is quite new.”
Roland-Manuel went on to write:
“It is a pleasure to hear a sonata for piano and violin in which two timbres that are usually so essentially opposed are in harmony; the flowing arabesques contrast or merge in the subtlest, most perfect manner.”
For such an interesting and important composition, it may be surprising to learn that there have been only two commercial recordings made of this music — although a third one is scheduled to be released in the United States in April 2014 (featuring violinist Ilona Then-Bergh and pianist Michael Schäfer) on the Genuin label.
The first recording was made by the husband-and-wife duo team of violinist Jean Fournier and pianist Ginette Doyen in 1959 for the French label Véga, which issued the Sonata on a 10” LP.
[Long considered a touchstone recording, the Fournier/Doyen performance has been reissued on CD, on the ACCORD label.]
More than 30 years would go by before the second recording of the Sonate libre was made, by violinist Régis Benoit and Franco-Turkish pianist Huseyin Sermet. It was recorded in 1992 and released on the Valois label.
Interpretively, I consider the Valois recording to be every bit the equal of the classic Fournier/Doyen performance. It also boasts better sonics, sounding more natural and less “boxy.”
The Benoit/Sermet recording is also available for audition on YouTube:
For clues as to the musical challenges the Sonate libre poses to musicians, the words of violinist and conductor John McLaughlin Williams are instructive. He and pianist David Riley tackled the work back in the mid-1990s, performing it at the Cleveland Institute.
Here’s what Maestro Williams says about the composition:
“It is such a great piece. You can easily wonder why it isn’t performed more, and I can answer authoritatively that violinists look at the score and say, ‘WTF!’. Some will never show it to a pianist because they cannot comprehend what they are looking at. Sonate libre is modern music that begins stylistically where Debussy and Ravel left off. While harmonically their influence is detectable, it is actually anticipatory of Messiaen, while texturally it inhabits the world of the younger Dutilleux.”
… All of which serves to show us the musical riches that await the listener when hearing Florent Schmitt’s Sonate libre. Give it a whirl; I think you will find that this is a half-hour of time well-worth spent.