One of the most satisfying of Florent Schmitt’s extensive trove of music for piano duet and duo – and the one that is my personal favorite of all of them – is Trois Rapsodies, Op. 53, a work he composed in 1903-4.
Made up of three movements titled Française, Polonaise and Viennoise, it is a work that fully engages the senses on first hearing.
That’s not unexpected, considering the “immediate appeal” that music of this kind has on listeners; the rhapsodies of Liszt, Dvořák, Enesco, Ravel and Gershwin are also good cases in point.
What is perhaps more surprising is how interesting and inventive these rhapsodies continue to sound on subsequent hearings.
As it turns out, this isn’t superficial music at all. Instead, it is meaty material that continues to pay rich dividends every time it’s heard. I’ve known this music for more than 40 years, and it never grows old or “routine.”
As the CD booklet notes for one of the Rapsodies recordings puts it:
“The music is saturated with rich harmonies and textures, offering nearly every possible kind of ‘poly’ element – polyphonic, polyrhythmic, poly-thematic – in a rainbow of colors coated with grace and elegance.”
The Canadian pianist Leslie de’Ath contends that Florent Schmitt’s “mastery of the unexpected” is unsurpassed in this particular composition, writing:
“Schmitt’s cornucopia of delicious musical tricks seems always to be just one step ahead of the listener, while at the same time inviting us to savor each unexpected moment.”
The musicologist and librettist Charles Burr described the pieces as “sophisticated national rhapsodies.” He is correct: each of the movements possesses distinct “national” characteristics – yet they are also thoroughly cosmopolitan.
The French novelist and music critic Benoît Duteurtre senses the inspiration of three composers in the music: Chabrier in Française; Chopin in Polonaise; and Johann Strauss Jr. in Viennoise. Perhaps — but I wouldn’t consider Schmitt to be aping these other composers in any sort of fashion.
More broadly, the Armenian-American pianist Andrey Kasparov discerns other aspects as well, describing the movements that make up the Trois rapsodies like this:
“[They] are conceived in the grand Romantic style, with the composer taking full advantage of the multilayered textural and coloristic possibilities of two pianos. Despite the intense contrapuntal writing and, at times, complex harmonic language, the work never loses its Gallic charm, lyricism and humor.”
Fortunately, the music is well-represented on disk today, although it took decades before the first recording would appear.
That premiere recording was made by Columbia Records in 1956 with Robert and Gaby Casadesus – and it would remain the only recorded documentation of this music for nearly 40 years thereafter.
That full-bodied performance is viscerally very exciting, and I think it’s fair to say that no other recording since has conveyed quite the swagger that the Casadesus team delivers.
The Casadesus recording is available to hear on YouTube. If you listen past the somewhat scratchy vinyl and the thin base response (a defect in the transfer, not in the original Columbia recording which is satisfyingly full-bodied), you’ll discover just how effective the Casadesus interpretation is.
Even better, the recording has finally been reissued on CD mere months ago, after being out of the catalogue for decades.
In 1992, the first stereo recording of the Trois rapsodies appeared – another highly effective reading by pianists Huseyin Sermet and Kun Woo Paik. Released on the Valois label, this interpretation inhabits a sound-world redolent of the Casadesus performance — but perhaps with a bit more “icy brittleness.”
But you can compare for yourself, thanks to Philippe Louis who has uploaded the Valois performance on one of his worthy YouTube music channels.
The three more recent recordings – two Canadian and one American – are more broadly expansive in their flavor. They are:
Invencia Piano Duo (Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn) – NAXOS Grand Piano (recorded 2010)
Leslie de’Ath and Anya Alexeyev – Dutton Epoch (recorded 2011)
Having listened to all five of the commercial recordings of the Trois rapsodies, I can confirm that each has its own merits. All of the performances are polished efforts; whichever interpretation one would consider “the best” is purely a matter of personal preference.
I have also been fortunate to see this music performed in recital — a terrifically exciting performance by the Invencia Piano Duo done in 2013. From this experience, I know first-hand that the rhapsodies make quite an impact when heard live.
It can be safely assumed that the audience at the recital I attended did not know this music at all before hearing it that evening … and yet the response was electric.
Interestingly, there is another two-pianist rhapsody by Florent Schmitt that exists – an unpublished work composed in 1900. Written in much the same vein as the Trois rapsodies, this other one is called Rhapsodie parisienne.
The score was discovered among the composer’s papers at the Bibliothèque National in Paris when Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn (who make up the Invencia Piano Duo) were doing research as part of their project to record the entire works by Florent Schmitt for piano duet and duo. (Those four CDs were released by NAXOS Grand Piano in 2012 and 2013.)
Thanks to permission granted by Florent Schmitt’s granddaughter, the Rhapsodie Parisienne was able to be recorded. It appears on the same Invencia CD as the Trois rapsodies, and it proves itself to be every bit as colorful as the other three pieces. An exciting public performance of this rhapsody, played by the Invencia Piano Duo, is also available on YouTube.
Schmitt was known to consider the piano to be “a convenient but disappointing substitute” for an orchestra (to quote his words). So it should come as little surprise that he orchestrated a number of his piano scores for performance in the concert hall. Examples of these works include Soirs, Feuillets de voyage, Mirages, Puppazzi and Reflets d’Allemagne.
Such was the case with the Trois rapsodies also. The first movement to be orchestrated was Rapsodie viennoise, done by Schmitt in 1911. It received its first performance by the Orchestre Lamoureux later that year under the direction of Camille Chevillard (and it was recorded by Albert Wolff with this same orchestra in 1931).
[According to a report from Andrey Kasparov, when studying the manuscript for the Rhapsodie parisienne he noticed instrument markings made by Schmitt. This leads Kasparov to believe that the composer had intended to orchestrate this work as well. Why he didn’t – and why the original two-piano version wasn’t published either – remains a mystery.]
Unlike the relatively robust recorded history of the piano version of the Rapsodies, no complete recording of the orchestral version has ever been made. The 1931 Rapsodie viennoise recording is still available today, contained in a large 4-CD set released by Timpani Records that includes all of Albert Wolff’s recordings made with the Lamoureux Orchestra.
Unfortunately both the interpretation and the sound quality of that Rapsodie viennoise recording are disappointing; the orchestra sounds lumpy and sluggish, and the sound is thin and boxy. It is nice to have it for historical reference – but that’s about all.
An alternative to the Wolff/Lamoureux recording exists in the form of a 1964 concert performance done by Serge Baudo with the ORTF Orchestra and broadcast over French National Radio. Although not much better in terms of sonics, it is a far more vivacious and engaging interpretation. The Baudo performance has been uploaded to YouTube and can be heard here.
Despite their sonic shortcomings, listening to these orchestral performances makes it clear that this is music that’s well-worthy of resurrection in the modern era. Having paged through the instrumental score, I can report that all of the trademark aspects of Schmitt’s compositional style are present – most particularly the beguiling and highly colorful orchestration in the grandest Rimsky-Korsakov tradition.
Here’s hoping that one of Florent Schmitt’s most ardent advocates will redress this situation in the coming years – perhaps one of the conductors Jacques Mercier, JoAnn Falletta, Sascha Goetzel, Fabien Gabel, Jean-Luc Tingaud, Lionel Bringuier or Stéphane Denève will step up to the podium and make the premiere recording. Who’s game?