Their designation of Paul Paray’s classic reading with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as the best overall recording is echoed by France-Musique’s listener audience.
As part of its popular broadcast series La Tribune des critiques de disques, in October 2017 the French national public radio channel France-Musique aired a two-hour program in which a roundtable panel of eminent French music critics — Séverine Garnier, Emmanuelle Giuliani and Christian Merlin — evaluated six currently available recordings of Florent Schmitt’s most famous composition.
The 1910 version of Schmitt’s ballet La Tragédie de Salomé, Opus 50 has been fortunate in both the quantity and quality of its recordings — more than 15 of them, beginning around 1930 and continuing up to the present day.
Amazingly, today most those recordings remain available in CD or download form. Six of them were selected for comparative listening by the panel:
- Paul Paray/Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Mercury (1958)
- Jean Martinon/Orchestre National de la Radio-Télévision Française, EMI (1972)
- Marek Janowski/Orchestre National de France, Erato (1988)
- Thierry Fischer/BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Hyperion (2006)
- Sylvain Cambreling/Southwest German Radio Symphony (Baden-Baden u. Freiburg), Hänssler (2007)
- Yan-Pascal Tortelier/Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Chandos (2010)
The program, moderated by France-Musique broadcaster Jérémie Rousseau, included generous audio excerpts presented “anonymously,” followed by reactions and opinions solicited from the panel by Mr. Rousseau.
Among the reactions to the six recordings were the following observations:
Cambreling/Hänssler: The ballet’s dark Prélude exudes almost-metaphysical dimensions, and the conductor’s incisive and authoritarian gestures never release the tension. It is a dark and dramatic vision of the score — even in moments which would have benefitted from more lightness and sensuality.
Fischer/Hyperion: While emphasizing the “modernisms” in the score, there is plenty of drama in certain places, while in others — particularly in the Enchantments sur la mer section — the interpretation devolves into a caricature of “orientalism.” Neither is the orchestral playing particularly impressive.
Janowski/Erato: Fuzzy orchestral tuttis, dull solos and a persistent lack of personality characterize this thoroughly prosaic reading. Florent Schmitt’s orchestral magic is suppressed, rather than brought forth, in this interpretation.
Martinon/EMI: The interpretation offers a “too sequential” reading of Schmitt’s composition, and the atmospherics aren’t particularly seductive.
Paray/Mercury: In sparkling sound, this recording exults in the jewels of Florent Schmitt’s score. Following a moiré-colored Prélude, the Danse des perles is playful, menacing, and iridescent in its opalescent hues. The Enchantments sur la mer is full of color, followed by a Dionysian Danse des éclairs and the concluding Danse de l’effroi. A magnificent sense of the story is conveyed in this recording, which emerges as the essential one for anyone discovering this masterpiece for the first time.
Tortelier/Chandos: The musicians exude a certain languor, and the overall orchestral ensemble is achieved at the expense of clarity and drama. It is a wholly predictable “standardized” interpretation — no more and no less.
France-Musique has made the two-hour program available online. To listen to the entire broadcast — including the lively repartee and insightful comments made by the panel members, you can click here.
Incidentally, France-Musique also invited listeners to vote for their own personal favorite among the six recordings comparatively reviewed — and by a substantial margin these music-lovers agreed with the panelists. The Paray recording received 44% of the audience votes, with the Cambreling recording a distant runner-up at 25%.
That the Paray recording would be given such accolades by musical scholars is particularly fitting, I think, in that it was the first stereo recording made of Schmitt’s score. As a poignant side note, Maestro Paray was able to personally present a copy of the newly released recording to Schmitt at his home in the summer of 1958, only a few weeks before the composer’s death.
A Grand Prix du Disque winner, the Paray recording has stayed in the catalogue nearly continuously ever since its release — and certainly merits the continuing praise it receives even after six decades.