Experiencing Florent Schmitt’s Symphony No. 2 (1957) in concert: An eyewitness report from London.

Sakari Oramo

Sakari Oramo

On October 27, 2017, Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra presented Florent Schmitt’s Symphony No. 2, Opus 137 — the composer’s final orchestral work, which was completed in 1957 when Schmitt was 87 years old.

This performance at the Barbican in London was the first time the Symphony No. 2 had been presented in concert in Europe in nearly a dozen years. Its last outing had been in Paris, with Leonard Slatkin directing the Orchestre National de France.

Judging from the reviews of the concert, the piece went down well. Writing in the “Seen and Heard” column at MusicWeb International, music critic Alan Sanders reported that the BBC players delivered “a characterful, virtuosic performance” of the symphony.

BBC Symphony Orchestra

BBC Symphony Orchestra players.

Sanders noted the “bouncy, intricate rhythms and pungent scoring” in the first movement, characterizing it as “highly individual in its style” and “very Gallic in mood.” He described the orchestration throughout the symphony as “brilliant,” and concluded that the symphony is “quite a piece for an octogenarian.”

Writing on the ClassicalSource website, music critic Colin Anderson reported that Schmitt’s symphony “exudes Gallic finesse as well as oodles of vibrancy … a notable ‘endgame’ piece that is also a genuine symphony and well-worth discovering.”

Regarding the first movement of the Symphony No. 2, Anderson wrote:

“It certainly made a big impression here — a testimony to the excellence of the performance — in, first off, music of elegance, martial determination and caprice, the opening movement also having a joyeux quality contrasted by an enticing lyrical side, led by an oboe, that is as bittersweet as it is rapturous.”

Anderson considers the second movement “the core of the work” — a characterization with which I completely agree. He described the movement as “beginning in the depths — soulful, introspective, yet with a big expressive heart … closing as if in the shadows of sunset (a filmic element is palpable in this haunting music).”

And over on the Bachtrack concert, opera and ballet review website, critic Dominic Lowe had this to say about the Symphony No. 2:

“Oramo made a compelling case for the piece; the quirky, rumbustious opening precisely played and the percussion writing … given full flavor. Oramo gave full focus to Schmitt’s game of contrasts, the chaotic and sometime jazz-inflected faster moments forcefully articulated against the slow, verdant playing of the orchestra in the lush slower points … The performance certainly left one with an enthusiasm to explore Schmitt’s work in more detail.”

Not all reviews were as universally positive. Peter Quantrill, writing at The Arts Desk, opined that Schmitt “tears up the symphonic rulebook and leaves the pieces to rain down like fluorescent confetti.”

In this characterization, Quantrill would seem to be in a distinct minority — at least when it comes to conductors. The American conductor JoAnn Falletta has written this about the Symphony No. 2:

“The structure of the symphony is strong and propulsive. It is an extraordinary work that manages to convey both seriousness and wit, in orchestral garb that is quintessential Florent Schmitt — shimmering with the glorious instrumentation that is one of his hallmarks.  The second movement in particular is one of the most emotionally moving expressions from any composer.”

Sakari Oramo obviously considered the piece worthy enough to resurrect for London audiences, stating in a BBC Radio 3 interview:

“It encompasses all of the different musical expressions and styles that he’d used over almost eight decades of composing. On the other hand, it’s far from being an ‘old man’s piece.’  It is really exuberant — very, very inventive, and incredibly busy for everyone.”

Florent Schmitt with Felix Aprahamian, Strasbourg, France 1958

Florent Schmitt and Felix Aprahamian at the world premiere performance of Schmitt’s Symphony No. 2 in Strasbourg, France in June 1958. Also pictured are composer-critic Gustave Samazeuilh, pianist Frank Mannheimer, and musicologist Marc Pincherle.

Personally, every conductor I’ve met who knows Schmitt’s Symphony No. 2 considers it to be a masterpiece … and I know at least four of them who would dearly love to present this music in concert.  One is French conductor Fabien Gabel, who stated in a recent interview:

“If there is an additional Schmitt composition that I would really like to present to the public, it is his Second Symphony.  Dating from 1957, it’s one of his very last works — a breathtaking piece positively brimming with creativity, freshness and modernity.  That it came from the pen of a composer who was well past the age of 85 is absolutely incredible.”

One of the challenges with programming Schmitt’s Symphony — beyond its relative obscurity among audiences and orchestra managements alike — is the fact that a virtuoso orchestra is needed to do the composition full justice.  Happily, consummate virtuosity was on order in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of the symphony last week.

Schmitt Segerstam Marco Polo

The 1988 Segerstam recording of Florent Schmitt’s Symphony No. 2.

Going beyond the overall polish of the presentation, I found that Sakari Oramo’s interpretation was demonstrably superior to the three recordings of the music that we have available for comparison:  the 1958 premiere live performance led by Charles Munch (Euromuses EURM 2009); a 1960 ORTF radio broadcast performance conducted by Jean Martinon (Forgotten Records FR 972), and a 1988 commercial recording led by Leif Segerstam (NAXOS/Marco Polo 8.223689).

Compared to these three recordings — all of which have their strong points) — I find that Maestro Oramo gives the music more room to breathe, and the inner voicings are much better heard. To my ears, Oramo’s generally broader tempos seem to be a very good interpretive choice as well.

BBC Symphony OrchestraBut you can judge for yourself, because BBC Radio 3 has made the entire October 27th concert available to hear online from now until the end of November. I urge you to take this chance to listen to the music .  (You’ll likely find that listening to it several times will increase your appreciation of the wealth of musical invention that is inherent in Schmitt’s score.)

Beyond hearing a broadcast rendition of the music, nothing beats being present at the concert and experiencing the performance in person. And that was the case for one of the faithful readers of the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog.  British architectural expert and heritage consultant Edmund Harris was able to attend last week’s concert.

Just as he was able to provide an “eyewitness report” from the BBC Symphony’s October 2016 presentation of Florent Schmitt’s incidental music to Antoine et Cléopâtre (presented together with actors from Shakespeare’s Globe), Harris has again shared his perspectives about this latest concert for the benefit of readers.  His remarks are presented below:

PLN: I know you are quite familiar with the music of Florent Schmitt, but prior to attending the BBC concert of the Symphony No. 2, did you know this particular piece by the composer?

EH: Not enormously, I have to admit. Before setting off to the Barbican, I listened to the Segerstam recording while at work to refresh my memory of how the symphony goes, and to give me something to judge it against.  

I had purchased that CD back in 2011 when I first got interested in Schmitt’s music, but have to confess I don’t dust it off all that often.  

In any case though, listening to Schmitt when you’re doing something else, however intellectually undemanding, isn’t a great idea; it’s music that requires your full attention! 

PLN: Several musicologists have noted that the Symphony No. 2 doesn’t sound like the work of a composer who was in his late 80s when it was created. Instead, they contend that it sounds like a youthful composition.  Would you agree with this assessment? 

Florent Schmitt and Ralph Vaughan-Williams

Florent Schmitt and Ralph Vaughan Williams, pictured together in London in 1957.

EH: I would agree with those musicologists. Compare Schmitt’s symphony with, say, the changing emotional weather in the symphonies of Vaughan Williams (I’m choosing him because I know the symphonies well, and also because he was a friend and contemporary of Schmitt).  

The first two Vaughan Williams symphonies are confident, fairly optimistic pieces by a composer who’s enjoying the fact that he’s finally found the music language which had taken him until his 30s to develop.  

But by the time we get to the 9th Symphony (written at the end of his life), we’ve entered a very different world: bleak, pessimistic, resigned (although you do get that vivid flash of what seems to me to be some sort of transfiguration right at the end).  

There’s nothing like that with the Schmitt 2nd Symphony. Although recognizably something that’s grown out of late Romanticism, the musical language is still fresh. There’s a great deal of energy driving Schmitt to push it in different directions, and to find out what else it can do.  

There’s a lot of explosive energy in the Symphony, too, which just isn’t what you’d expect from a composer of his age. Some composers wear their heart on their sleeve and you can chart their inner life through their music — including an onset of weariness and failing strength as the end of their life approaches (consider Britten’s 3rd Quartet, or late Shostakovich generally).  

I just don’t think Schmitt was one of them. It wasn’t in his nature, and something of it comes across in photographs of him towards the end of his life – spry, dapper, and lively in a way that belies his age. 

PLN: What are your thoughts about each of the three movements of the Symphony? What aspects of each did you find particular noteworthy or memorable?

EH: In the first movement, there’s a huge amount of musical material going, and a lot to try and take on board. It’s not an immediately ingratiating sound world; the music sounds jerky at first — especially with the glissando-like figures — until you get onto Schmitt’s wavelength.  

The opening passages are arresting, especially the way that the themes are thrown around the orchestra. A lot of the orchestral coloration here is dark — reinforced by the way Schmitt uses the low brass. 

The second movement is the one that really made me wish I knew the music better when I was at the concert. The movement unfolds slowly. Schmitt knows exactly where the music’s going, but to appreciate that you need to know it well and to be able to follow the argument. 

In the third and final movement Schmitt turns the temperature back up, and the explosive orchestral outbursts and rhythmic vivacity are really invigorating — especially that three-note signature. You also hear some of the material from the opening of the first movement brought back.  The orchestra was really on fire; I was glad I was sitting as far back as I was in the dress circle, because the sonics were loud!

BBCSO Program Oramo Bavouzet Schmitt

The BBC Symphony Orchestra program featuring Florent Schmitt’s Symphony No. 2.

PLN: When you compare the Symphony No. 2 to the better-known orchestral works of Schmitt — most of which date from 40 or 50 years before the later piece was composed — in what ways do you sense a continuity in the style or flavor of the music? In what ways is it different?

EH: As a late composition, it’s much more angular, spiky music with all of the sudden changes of meter. Even though Schmitt uses a fairly big orchestra, the orchestration is leaner than what we typically hear in other large-scale works by him. 

Here, every section tells. Nothing is there just for the sake of instrumental color, and it doesn’t glitter in quite the same way as in the composer’s earlier works. There isn’t the same plush, rich and opulent “cosmic” sound that you hear in pieces like Psalm 47, or the tender lyricism of some of the passages in Le Petit elfe Ferme-l’oeil. 

PLN: How about the style of this symphony as compared to the music of other composers?  Were you reminded of other composers — or perhaps other specific pieces of music?

EH: That’s an interesting question. I was thinking to myself as I listened to the performance, “Suppose I switched on Radio 3, not knowing what was programmed, and came across this piece by chance — would I guess who had written this piece and when?”  

And I concluded that I probably wouldn’t be able to guess. I’d assume it was written in the 20th century, but I don’t think I’d place it in the 1950s and I don’t think I’d necessarily be able to tell that it was French, either. It’s highly individual stuff.  

It does remind me ever so slightly of some of Havergal Brian’s later symphonies — especially the slightly clunky rhythms and low brass. But I could never say, if someone asked me to describe it, “Oh, think a cross between so-and-so and so-and-so.” 

PLN: How would you rate the performance of the BBC Symphony Orchestra musicians — all of whom were likely playing this music for the very first time?

EH: To me, it seemed that they took a little while to hit their stride.  I’m not sure all of the musicians were totally at ease initially — but to be fair to them, I don’t think this is music that flows naturally, and it’s clear that its execution requires a great deal of skill and concentration.  

But once they were over that, it went very well. The energy and bite of the final movement in particular were really gripping. 

PLN: What was the audience reaction to the Symphony?  Did you get the sense that they were “with” the performance, or not particularly engaged with it? 

BBCSO Program CoverEH: There was generous applause from the audience — which is about as much as you can expect when it’s a piece of music in a relatively modern idiom that few have ever heard before.  I imagine there were at least a few people in the audience who were there specifically to hear the Schmitt in concert, but I’m not sure how numerous we were!  

Given that the two concertante works [Ravel and Franck with pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet] had to be done in succession, I suppose there was no other way you could have arranged the evening’s programming, but I think ideally the piece shouldn’t have been first on the program – it would have helped if there had been something to warm up the audience.  

PLN: Based on your experience in this concert, do you think this symphony would make an effective piece for other conductors and orchestras to program?

EH: It should do.  It’s a cracking piece, it’s a chance to show off orchestral virtuosity, and it’s long enough to fill up half of a concert program.  

I imagine you’d need to choose the rest of the program carefully, though — and I suspect the choice of the other musical items — all of which must have been well-familiar to the BBC Symphony — was a deliberate one in this case.  

The big problem is that unfortunately, Schmitt still suffers from a lack of name recognition here in the UK, and I imagine in the USA also. I get the impression that with the exception of warhorses like La Mer or Boléro, late 19th and early 20th century French music in general doesn’t tend to draw big audiences.  

Speaking locally, tastes in London seem to be awfully skewed towards Germany and Russia. By contrast, turnout was poor for an excellent concert during this season’s Proms, presented by François-Xavier Roth and ‘Les Siècles’ that featured 19th century French music. All of it was very approachable stuff [Lalo, Delibes, Franck, Saint-Saëns], and all of it was thoroughly enjoyable. I’m really at a loss to understand why more people didn’t come to it.

Schmitt is a bit more challenging than that — but no more than Shostakovich. And Shostakovich seems to be guaranteed to fill concert halls these days.  

I really wish we heard Schmitt more often (also Roussel, Koechlin, the “non-pops’” Milhaud – the list could be extended a long way), but I’m not holding my breath waiting for those days to arrive.

PLN: You aren’t a professional musician, but music is a very important part of your life and has seeped into your career at times, as well.  Please bring us up to date on your music-related activities since being interviewed last by the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog.

EH: Music is hugely, hugely important, yes! There were some excellent concerts at the Proms this year. Besides the Les Siècles performance, Gurre-Lieder and The Damnation of Faust stick in my mind, as does a really interesting concert of Czech music illustrating how the Hussite chorale used by Smetana in “Tábor” from Má Vlast has been used by other Czech composers as a badge of national identity.  

Also, thanks to Vladimir Jurowski’s inventive and original programming at the London Philharmonic, there have been some very interesting concerts at the South Bank. A recent highlight was a concert performance of Enescu’s complete Oedipe which was extremely impressive.  So, although a lot of concert programming in London is somewhat unadventurous, there have been some glorious exceptions.  

I’m also exploring new music all the time on the Internet, thanks to the huge amount of material that kind people have uploaded to YouTube. Recently I’ve been further exploring the music of Marius Constant – a wonderful composer who is badly under-recorded and under-appreciated. His score for the ballet Éloge de la folie has been a revelation and I’d love to know more about it.  

Because I’ve now taken a new professional position in my field, I am leaving London for Canterbury. I have to say that despite all the frustrations of this city, I’m going to miss the London music scene a great deal when I move. But one compensation of living in a cathedral city is that I’ll have plenty of good choral music to enjoy! 

PLN: Are there any other observations you would like to share about Florent Schmitt’s music? 

EH: My main hope is that record companies will pay him more attention! My heart sinks when I see yet another release of a Mahler or Sibelius symphony cycle, although I can understand the desire of conductors to tackle these works and to show their mettle that way.  

Let me say straightaway that I’m suspicious of attempts to play up as “forgotten geniuses” composers who really are marginal figures — as happens with a lot of 20th century English minor masters, for example.  

But Florent Schmitt is in a different league than that, and I’m sure it’s a lack of decent recordings of all but a few of his pieces that has prevented him getting his due. It staggers me that there are still no decent modern recordings of something as impressive as the Janiana string symphony. Let’s hope that gets put right soon!

______________________

Chandos RecordsWe can only echo Edmund Harris’ wish. We’re grateful for the news that the Chandos label is making the first new commercial recording in more than a quarter-century of Florent Schmitt’s Symphony No. 2 — and that it features Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

We hope it will be the first of more new recordings of Schmitt’s lesser-known compositions that become available.

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