In 2013, one of the earliest interviews I conducted for the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog was with the French pianist Bruno Belthoise. I had discovered him from YouTube, where several movements of Florent Schmitt’s piano four-hand suite Une semaine du petit elfe Ferme-l’oeil, Opus 58 had been uploaded from a performance he gave at the Schola Cantorum in Paris with the late, great pianist Claude Maillols.
This suite of seven piano pieces draws its inspiration from a Hans Christian Andersen book called The Songs of Hialmar. In the tale, a boy (Hialmar) is visited each night of the week by a sandman-like character (Ferme-l’oeil – freely translated it means “sleepy-eyes”), who helps the boy to sleep while conjuring up a series of “dream sequences” – one for each night of the week.
Like several of his other piano duet works, Schmitt intended this suite for students to perform with their piano instructors. The student plays the simple primo part and the teacher performs a far more elaborate and complex secondo part.
The Maillols/Belthoise performance at the Schola Cantorum (with Mr. Belthoise playing the challenging secondo part) is one that I found quite fetching. After making contact, he graciously agreed to be interviewed, resulting in an article that was published on this site in August 2013 which you can read here.
Since that time, I’ve followed the pianist’s career with interest, as he has embarked on a number of interesting activities and project, including an intensive exploration of piano and chamber music created by Portuguese composers.
These more recent activities have resulted in the release of a NAXOS recording devoted to the chamber works of three Portuguese composers, with Bruno Belthoise joined by two other musicians that make up the Trio Pangea.
But even with these and other projects focused on Portuguese music, the music of Florent Schmitt has continued to be an abiding interest of Mr. Belthoise, and he has always kept Le petit elfe in his repertoire, joining forces with several other pianists at different times to perform this music in various venues across Europe.
Most recently, in celebrating 20 years of his focus on Portuguese classical music, special double-CD recording (along with a concurrent digital download release) was issued in conjunction with several arts organizations, including MPMP (Movimento Patrimonial pele Musica Portuguesa), Fundação GDA (Portuguese Foundation for Interpreters’ Rights), and the Portuguese National Broadcasting Company.
The set, titled Lisboa-Paris, consists of one CD devoted to Portuguese music and second one featuring French musical selections. All of the performances are taken from Mr. Belthoise’s concert or radio broadcast performances.
Considering his obvious affection for the piece it’s no surprise that Florent Schmitt’s Une semaine du petit elfe Ferme-l’oeil occupies a prominent position on the Lisboa-Paris set’s French disk. To my ears, the 2005 live performance, played by Mr. Belthoise along with fellow-pianist António Rosado, is one of the freshest and most idiomatic interpretations of this music ever issued.
I have stayed in touch with Bruno Belthoise over the years, and so was very happy to be able to extend my congratulations on his latest recording. This was also an opportunity to ask him some follow-up questions based on our original interview four years ago.
The latest interview paralleled several social events held in Lisbon in late October to celebrate the release of the new recording, at which time Messrs. Belthoise and Rosado performed Schmitt’s Le petit elfe, among other musical selections, for the appreciative guests. (Mr. Belthoise’s remarks below are translated from French into English.)
PLN: It has been a number of years since you started performing Une semaine du petit elfe Ferme-l’oeil, and I’ve noticed some subtle changes in your approach to the music over that time. Can you please tell us how your conception of the music has evolved?
BB: First of all, I would like to thank you for your interest in my work, and I congratulate you for your efforts to promote French music, and that of Florent Schmitt in particular.
For me personally, I must say that this composer is astonishing and so full of surprises on many levels. Thanks to your website and blog, I’ve been discovering new works by Schmitt that are rarely performed — even in France.
For my part, I’ve kept Une semaine du petit elfe Ferme-l’oeil in my repertoire over a pretty long time. By interpreting the music with different piano partners, I continually see how full of surprises the music is — particularly in terms of how Schmitt composed the two parts. There’s real genius in how he was able to “mask” difference of writing that exists between the very simple primo (student) and very elaborate secondo (teacher) parts. At the same time, he captures the harmonies in a very personal way.
My evolution in this music over the years is due not only to the experience of playing the music with different partners, also my harmonic analysis of this work. You could say that Schmitt has a hyper-developed sense of harmonic language, and in this cycle it’s obvious that he was already thinking of orchestrating it, which indeed he did about a decade later.
What Schmitt manages to do in Le petit elfe is to take the melodic part which is reduced to a mere five notes of the primo part, and then vary the colors dramatically in the secondo part. Only a great master of writing could meet such a challenge so well.
The result is so rich and so successful, it is nearly impossible for listeners to realize the great difference in the writing between the two piano parts.
All of these observations helped me to evolve in my knowledge of the music, keeping my interest in the piece ever-fresh even over many years.
PLN: There is such a rich variety in the seven movements of Schmitt’s set of pieces. Which ones do you find the most interesting and inventive? Do you have a favorite movement?
BB: In truth, each of the seven movements is special in its own way. The composer moves from one “day” to another in the “week” by varying his type of writing, his rhythmic formulae and his timbres, to approach the various chapters of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale in very inventive ways.
La Noce des souris presents a popular dance in the renaissance style — but it’s also baroque with Schmitt’s use of hemiolas. The movement opens the entire set in a very lively way, with rustic accents.
Next, La Cigogne lasse takes us into an elegant and captivating dream; it’s one of my favorite pieces because Schmitt opens the entire range of the piano and gives it full resonance. There’s real lyrical emotion felt when one plays this piece, as if we were following the flight (and plight) of this magnificent migratory bird.
Le Cheval de Ferme-l’œil is an irresistible gallop where the richness of the chords goes hand-in-hand with the incessant repetition of their harmonies — all juxtaposed on a very lively tempo. This movement is one of my particular favorites because of its great and incessant momentum.
By contrast, Le Mariage de la poupée Berthe makes wonderful use of the swaying of very rich chords upon which the melody is placed — at once sweet and sparkling in the treble of the piano. What we find here is the presence of a melodic timbre à la française, but also pastel colors, in a peaceful atmosphere that seems almost suspended in time. The piece is deceptively difficult to bring off in that it requires a very controlled depression of the keys on the keyboard.
Lastly, there is the Le parapluie chinois movement which completes the set in dramatic fashion. It owes the peculiarity of its theme to the pentatonic scale, along with a picturesque “orientalism” that is very pronounced.
Overall, this composition is a triumph of dramaturgy in formal evolution. But it is also a big challenge for players — particularly the secondo part which is what I typically play.
I love this piece — and yet dread it every time I play it, because it is necessary to figure out the precision-regulated crossings of hands between myself and my partner. Even with concentrated practice together, it is never easy to get just right!
PLN: You have worked with a number of collaborators when performing Le petit elfe. On your new recording of this music, you have teamed up with the pianist António Rosado. When did the two of you start performing together? Who are the other pianists with whom you’ve presented this music in recital?
BB: Actually, the pianist António Rosado was my first partner in this work, and it is with him that I played the work in recital for the first time. The recording that has just appeared in the Lisboa-Paris set is a result of that collaboration back in 2005.
António is a well-known and highly-regarded pianist in Portugal. He has a very extensive repertoire; he gives many concerts and recitals with orchestra and with chamber music players. He has just recorded a piano-cello disc where he presents a beautiful transcribed version of César Franck’ Violin Sonata, coupled with the Cello Sonata of Luiz de Freitas Branco.
In addition, António and I were invited to perform this work at the Cistermúsica Festival in the city of Alcobaça (Portugal). Le petit elfe had been choreographed on this occasion by the contemporary dance company CeDeCe.
As you know, I have enlisted several different piano partners to play this set with me over the years, including Christina Margotto (for a series of narrative concerts at Porto Conservatory), Claude Maillols (for a recital filmed at the Schola Cantorum in Paris), and most recently, with pianist João Costa Ferreira for a concert at the RDP Portuguese Broadcasting studios.
There are also plans for preparing a new recording that will present Le petit elfe to young audiences along with narrative text adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s tale; that recording will be released soon.
For the release event concerts António and I gave in connection with the official release of the Lisboa-Paris recording in Lisbon on October 27-28, 2017, we featured the Schmitt work among other pieces. Not only was the audience very receptive to the music, it was also a great pleasure to relive the experience of playing this fine score with António once again after more than a decade’s time.
PLN: In recent years, in addition to the music of your native country France, you have been spending much time in Portugal, exploring and presenting the music of Portuguese classical composers. In fact, your latest recording devotes equal emphasis on both countries. How did this “French-Portuguese connection” develop?
BB: My attraction to the music of Portuguese composers is related to my taste for this culturally rich country. I am very close to its poetry, literature, history, language, but also close to the country in general and the dignified and respectful personality of the Portuguese people.
My deep interest in the country and its culture actually goes back to my childhood experiences with Portugal, which I discovered from the age of 14 on.
It’s now been 20 years since my first recording dedicated to the work of Francisco de Lacerda, who was a friend of Claude Debussy. In the two decades since, I have explored Portuguese music in multiple directions and ways. Among these is exploring the cultural links that Portugal has had with France since the beginning of the 20th century. The new Lisboa-Paris recording celebrates my 20 years of musical activity in Portugal as well as my continuing on Portuguese and French music in parallel with each other.
Portugal has a rich repertoire of music composed for the piano, but also for symphonic music as well. There are many very beautiful works to discover. I invite all music-lovers to listen to the orchestral works of Luiz de Freitas Branco, Joly Braga Santos, Frederico de Freitas, and from more recent times, Luís Tinoco and António Pinho Vargas. Their compositions are readily available on disc or downloads at NAXOS.
In addition, Portuguese chamber music is also very interesting. I am a founding member of the Pangea Trio, which is in the midst of recording an anthology of Portuguese trios. The first volume of this project has already been released by NAXOS, and the second volume will be recorded in 2018.
I’m very grateful to report that the press has widely praised our first recording, not only for the quality of the playing and the sound but also because of the interesting pieces featured, written by the composers Luiz Costa, Claúdio Carneyro and Sérgio Azevedo.
PLN: Who have been your “musician collaborators” in exploring and programming Portuguese repertoire? How did you team up?
BB: At the very beginning of my “performing adventure” with Portuguese music, I played sonatas with the cellist Teresa Valente Pereira, who along with violinist Adolfo Rascón Carbajal and me were the founding members of the Trio Pangea. Teresa is an exceptional musician. Following that, I joined up with other performing partners such as violist Alexandre Delgado (he is also a noted composer whose music I love) as well as the pianist João Costa Ferreira.
Projects are underway for presenting an event with The Impromptu Concert and pianist João Vasco. My collaborations with contemporary composers such as Sérgio Azevedo, Fernando Lapa and Carlos Marecos are ongoing. I also commission new works, and several new creations are being created for our trio by the composers Nuno Corte Real and António Chagas Rosa.
In parallel with these activities, I am making a personal effort to invite French interpreters to investigate Portuguese repertoire. As a result, several French musicians have explored and taken Portuguese works into their repertoire: Yves Charpentier (flute), Anne Chamussy (oboe), The Impromptu Concert (woodwind quintet), plus also my daughter Clara Belthoise (cello) and my son Léo Belthoise (violin).
PLN: In addition to playing in instrumental ensembles, you continue to perform repertoire for two pianists. Florent Schmitt composed many such pieces — all very wonderful sets of music. Have you investigated these other works?
BB: Yes, for sure! I am very interested in performing Reflets d’Allemagne for piano four hands, and there’s an interesting series of developments pertaining to that possibility — and it goes back more than a century!
In 1914, the American dancer Isadora Duncan choreographed three items from the eight-movement set (Lübeck, Dresden and Nuremberg) during her period spent in Bellevue, near Paris, shortly before her relocation back to the United States. These and other creations are a testament to Duncan’s instinctive taste and her ability to inform her art from various sources of inspiration.
Francesca Todesco, a friend of mine who is a freelance dancer in New York City, is an Isadora Duncan specialist. In 2011, in her presentation Dances by Isadora she performed these three movements from Reflets d’Allemagne; it was the first time they had been presented in dance form in more than 15 years.
And now, plans are in the works for me to play these pieces in a show about Isadora Duncan that Francesca Todesco is now creating with several collaborators.
As for other piano four-hand works by Schmitt, the Trois rapsodies in particular are brilliant and beautiful. But because of how those are scored for two pianos, it is a problem to find venues which have two instruments — not only to prepare the interpretation but also to present it in concert.
But for sure, those sophisticated national rhapsodies would be some of the first new pieces I plan to add to my repertoire just as soon as I am able to do so.
PLN: Your activities are now taking you beyond the European continent. For example, you were recently in New York City to present a set of concerts of Portuguese music. What other performance activities or projects are in the planning stages for you at this time?
BB: Since 2016, I have been doing a large number of solo concerts with repertoire centered on the connection between French and Portuguese classical music. One of these is a tribute to the great filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, who died in 2015 at the incredible age of 106.
In this recital, which gathers events related to the life and spirit of this exceptional artist, there is footage from his first film of 1931 that I accompany on the piano with my own music.
This program was presented at the Tribeca Film Center in New York City in October 2016, and also in Montréal, Sydney, Warsaw, Vigo (Pontevedra) and Vienna, as well as various cities in Switzerland and in France.
I have several other touring projects planned for Madrid coming up in March 2018, as well as tours in Turkey and in Morocco. In addition, I continue to develop my piano four-hand repertoire with João Costa Ferreira. We are preparing a new program consisting of music by José Vianna da Motta, Georges Bizet, and a new creation of Carlos Marecos.
I also have numerous concerts planned with the Trio Pangea; we will play in several Portuguese music festivals during 2018 featuring the music of Haydn, Schumann, Beethoven and Debussy along with several Portuguese composers, including the premiere performance of a new work by Alexandre Delgado (the Camoniano Trio).
Lastly, I am working with The Impromptu Concert (a woodwind quintet) and the soprano Capucine Keller to present a tribute to Hector Berlioz in 2019, which will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the death of this great French composer in 1869.
PLN: I would like to thank you for championing the music of Florent Schmitt — particularly Une semaine du petit elfe Ferme-l’oeil. The composer’s popularity seems to be on the rise. To what do you attribute this renaissance of interest in Schmitt and his artistry?
BB: First off, I would like to say that I am taken aback by the misunderstandings on the part of some French interpreters concerning Florent Schmitt and his music. Quite a few musicians have never heard any of his music — and even if they have, often they don’t have the curiosity to investigate it further.
Contributing to this environment here in my home country, at least until very recently, is that some of the radio commentators at France-Music have not valued Florent Schmitt and have been somewhat dismissive of his legacy. The stupidity that expresses itself in that way has always seemed to me to be a form of intellectual laziness.
What really should be at the center of any discussion about Florent Schmitt is the incredible quality of this creator’s artistry and of his musical output. It is a legacy that absolutely deserves a place of high honor within French music of the past 100 or 150 years.
But you’re correct in that there are more and more recordings of Schmitt’s music being made these days, including some of the master’s compositions that have fallen into oblivion.
Personally, I look forward to seeing regular programming of the greatest Schmitt orchestral creations in the season of every Parisian orchestra. Psaume XLVII, La Tragédie de Salomé, Antoine et Cléopâtre, Salammbó, Oriane et le Prince d’Amour … these incredible masterpieces should be repertoire that’s familiar to all, and should appear often on our orchestras’ concert programs.
Like many other music-lovers, not only will I attend those concerts, I will encourage all of my friends and relatives to do so as well!
It is gratifying to know of Bruno Belthoise’s abiding passion for Florent Schmitt’s music, and his efforts to give it exposure wherever and whenever he can. With musicians like Mr. Belthoise advocating for Schmitt’s music so strongly, it can only mean good things for audiences everywhere.