In 2020, the NAXOS label plans to release its second disk of music by the French composer Florent Schmitt that features the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and its music director, JoAnn Falletta.
The first recording, which was released in 2015, included several orchestral pieces by Schmitt: the two Antoine et Cléopâtre suites (after William Shakespeare) and the symphonic etude Le Palais hanté (after Edgar Allan Poe). That recording was praised by music critics around the world as a significant artistic success.
In March 2019, Falletta and the BPO returned to the microphones to record two of the four Florent Schmitt pieces planned for the 2020 release: La Tragédie de Salomé, Op. 50 (composed in 1907 and revised in 1910, based on a ballet scenario by Robert d’Humières), plus the early art song Musique sur l’eau, Op. 33, set to poetry by the French symbolist writer Albert Samain (composed in 1898 and orchestrated by Schmitt in 1913).
Falletta chose Canadian mezzo-soprano Susan Platts as the solo vocalist in both pieces — an artist with which she has collaborated previously in concert and on recordings.
Underscoring the keen interest in the 2019 Buffalo Philharmonic concerts and recording session, the events attracted visitors from five states who traveled to snowy Buffalo to take in the proceedings.
I was privileged to be among the out-of-state guests who came to Buffalo. Moreover, I able to visit with JoAnn Falletta and Susan Platts to ask them about the music they were presenting and recording. Highlights of our very interesting hour-long conversation are presented below.
PLN: Maestra Falletta, this will be your second album with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra devoted to the music of Florent Schmitt. Why have you chosen to focus on this particular composer as part of your recording projects for the NAXOS label?
JoAnn Falletta: Our whole NAXOS recording journey is based on finding unfamiliar or lesser-played music of the late-Romantic and post-Romantic era, so I’m always looking for composers who fit that mission. In these kinds of searches it’s rare to find real gems. You find lots of wonderful music; you find music that’s interesting — music that should be recorded. But it’s more rare to find something that’s astonishingly good.
That’s what I’ve discovered with Florent Schmitt’s output — again and again. It’s music that is so sophisticated — and so important in terms of the “next step” in the development French music.
In that sense, it’s mystifying to me why he isn’t better-known. Our first CD recording of Schmitt’s music with NAXOS just cemented that in my mind. This is music that should be known, and it should be played often.
La Tragédie de Salomé was the next logical step after the success of the first recording. Salomé may be Schmitt’s most admired piece — and no wonder, because it is beautifully written. To be able to record it for NAXOS is a great honor.
The music is better-known than Antony & Cleopatra, but that doesn’t mean it’s famous. There isn’t even one person in our orchestra who has played it before — or in most cases even heard of it. It hasn’t made its way into the mainstream even though it is played more than practically any other piece by the composer.
PLN: The two works being performed and recorded this weekend are scored for voices with the orchestra. Schmitt wrote many compositions featuring solo vocalists in addition to an extensive amount of choral music, although he never composed an opera. What are your impressions of how he writes for the voice?
JoAnn Falletta: It’s rather hard to tell in Salomé, because there it’s essentially a fragment — an oriental siren call of some sort. It’s probably not typical of Schmitt’s vocal writing, but it’s certainly very effective.
It must have been quite startling for audiences — all of a sudden hearing a voice from offstage, singing — which is how we plan to perform it in our concerts this weekend. I can’t imagine a more magical moment than to hear a human voice come out of the fabric of the orchestra, because Schmitt overlaps that shimmering voice with the orchestra.
There are recordings where the vocal part is played by an oboe, and some of those are very fine. But for our recording we felt that it needed to be Schmitt’s original concept of actually introducing a voice — which in some ways is a beautiful departure from what was typically being done in orchestral pieces being created at that time.
Of course, we get a much fuller extent of how Schmitt writes for the voice in Musique sur l’eau, which is an absolute jewel. It is simply a mini-masterpiece. It’s only five minutes or maybe a little longer, but Schmitt exploits the color of the voice in a beautiful way, utilizing the full tessitura of what a mezzo-soprano can sing.
Even Schmitt’s choice of a mezzo is very seductive — even opulent — and very much in the character of the age in which the piece was composed.
The mezzo is singing about water, but it’s really about an ocean of music, bringing us into a kind of ecstatic world. That moment when she sings “Ecoute — la symphonie” … it’s just stunning.
For me, what’s equally incredible is how Schmitt crafts the accompaniment. For a long time I had access only to the composer’s original version for voice and piano, along with the 1958 radio performance with Régine Crespin and the ORTF which was miked in such a way that only the strings of the orchestra could be heard clearly. So it was hard to distinguish the colors.
But when you look at the score and rehearse it with an orchestra, you realize what a masterful ear Schmitt had for color — knowing how to lead up to great climaxes and then clear away for the voice. The piece has some very beautiful chamber music-like moments, even with the surges of the orchestra in other places.
It’s all about color — and this composer’s sense of color was absolutely extraordinary. But Schmitt also knew how to give the voice space at just the right moments while also having the orchestra surge up — like the welling up of water. It’s beautiful writing for voice, and equally exquisite writing for the orchestra.
It is a perfect five minutes. Even the way the piece ends is perfection: The singer finishes, and then we have this little instrumental tag that links from one color to the next before the music melts away to nothingness.
When you think about the words to the music, I like how one American writer [Amy Lawrence Lowell] characterizes Albert Samain’s poetry as possessing a “vague magnificence.” And indeed, there’s something unknowable — not only in the poetry but also in the music. It’s not concrete in any way, and it’s not striving for clarity.
PLN: Musique sur l’eau is an early work, composed in 1898 when the composer was in his 20s. How would you characterize this piece in terms of its style and the era in which it was written? Does the piece fit stylistically within what we typically think of as the French art song?
Susan Platts: First, it’s amazing when we realize that Schmitt wrote this piece when he was still in his 20s. It sounds mature; it’s complex.
As for whether it fits within the style of the French art song, I don’t sense this, really. It’s lush music, and when I compare it to Fauré and Debussy and even Ravel, this piece doesn’t fit too well within that corner of the repertoire.
Perhaps because I’ve lived much of my musical life in the world of Mahler, I’m hearing lush romanticism; I’m hearing [Richard] Strauss and Mahler, even if the music is quite different from those composers in so many other ways.
Do you ever feel that a French art song can sometimes give you the detached sense of being in another room? That isn’t the feeling you get from Musique sur l’eau. There’s real heart in this music. That’s different from many French art songs where the listener is called upon to “decode” it in some way.
I think of Samain’s poetry as closer in spirit to the French art song than Schmitt’s music is, actually. The piece is presented to you lushly, which is different. I might differ a little from JoAnn in this view but to me, Schmitt seems to be making what is unclear, clear.
JoAnn Falletta: I don’t consider myself to be an expert on French art songs, but I will say that the music the Schmitt piece reminds me of most is Three Poems of Fiona MacLeod by Charles Griffes — an American composer who was highly influenced by French musical style. Both are lush — and quite different from Ravel’s Shéhérazade, for instance, which although it is exquisitely beautiful, seems more aloof by comparison.
PLN: What was it like to come to this music for the very first time? How did you develop your conception of the music?
Susan Platts: When JoAnn approached me about this project, she sent me the music first, along with a link to the Schmitt memorial concert performance that’s been uploaded to YouTube. For me, I need to listen to music first to determine if I feel a connection to it — especially if it’s going to be a recording I’m making as well. I like to feel that I’m going to find an emotional connection.
At first, I had no idea who this composer was. Considering his last name, part of me thought, “Austrian? German perhaps?” I do a lot of German music, so that seemed OK — but then I discovered that he was French. So now I was a little confused, but certainly intrigued!
And then when I listened to the music, both of the Schmitt pieces spoke to me and I could feel myself doing them.
Generally when coming to a new piece of music, I like to delve into different recordings to get a sense of how others may be interpreting the work. With the Salomé this was possible, but not with Musique sur l’eau. So that meant the main focus was on reading the poetry and learning the notes — trying it out on the piano — for it to begin to come together.
The French language can pose special challenges of articulation, plus some tricky vowel sounds which we must get just right while maintaining a smooth flow. This was another challenge to be met — and a little more of a hurdle for me than the German language is typically.
During our rehearsals, the BPO’s cover conductor mentioned that I could be doing more to articulate the words throughout Musique sur l’eau. With the French language, you don’t want to interrupt the flow, but you want to be understood, too. So I found that I needed to be just a bit more “percussive.” Finding that perfect balance wasn’t easy.
When I compared my score to what Régine Crespin sang on the 1958 memorial concert broadcast, I discovered that there are several places where her entrances are either late or early — by a couple of beats even. (My French horn-playing husband, Neil Kimel, confirmed this.) It was a reminder that I needed to pay very close attention to the score, where there can be some deceivingly tricky rhythmic passages — something my Scottish-born vocal coach Alan Darling cautioned me as well when he worked with me on the piece.
In Crespin’s case, were they mistakes or was it simply taking artistic license? We’ll never know, but my goal was to be respectful to the score as it was written.
JoAnn Falletta: I did read the Samain poetry first — even before I saw the orchestral parts. I think the poem informs the music. There’s actually very little tinkering you need to do with the music. The words themselves tell you when to push and when to relax. Organically, it’s perfect.
Now that we’ve had the chance to play the piece in rehearsal, I can say that the music is so much better than I expected it to be. To hear it in “space,” it is simply amazing. I hope our listeners will feel the same way.
It’s about the most perfect five minutes of vocal music that you can imagine.
Susan Platts: I found it wonderful to hear my voice with the orchestra — and there’s so much more in the score compared to I was able to hear in the broadcast recording. To experience it here in Buffalo with all of the instrumentation plainly audible has been quite special.
In our first run-through we didn’t have to stop even one time — nothing got hiccupped. It was really quite good — which was also very gratifying! Until you step onto the stage and do that first rehearsal, you never really know how it’s going to go — even if there are 100 recordings of the music out there to listen to beforehand.
PLN: Your recording will be the first one ever made of Musique sur l’eau — and indeed of any of Schmitt’s works for solo voice and orchestra. How does it feel to be a trailblazer in this repertoire?
JoAnn Falletta: I’m so delighted that this little gem is going to be on our recording. There are numerous other recordings available of Salomé, but this will be the very first one of Musique sur l’eau. I’m hoping that it will inspire people to look at other vocal pieces by Schmitt — and he wrote so many of them that he orchestrated as well. The fact that he did so is clearly a sign of how significant he considered this part of his output to be.
PLN: Susan, does Musique sur l’eau make you curious to explore other art songs by Florent Schmitt?
Susan Platts: Absolutely! I see that very few people have done so, although I notice that Philippe Jaroussky has recorded one early chanson. There’s more than enough material to create an entire CD of these works, many of which I’m sure are very fine pieces. As JoAnn mentions, most of them have been orchestrated by the composer, too.
PLN: Turning to La Tragédie de Salomé, this is Schmitt’s most famous orchestral piece. Your new recording will join numerous others made by such luminaries as Charles Munch, Paul Paray, Jean Martinon and Yan-Pascal Tortelier — all French conductors. As a non-French interpreter, what special qualities do you bring to this music?
JoAnn Falletta: I really don’t think that this piece — or French music in general — needs to be confined to a French interpreter. Of course it helps to be steeped in the culture, and a knowledge of the language is helpful, too. But speaking as someone who loves French music and who has programmed much of it over the years, I’m just delighted to be in that world. It isn’t a foreign language to me.
Aspects of Schmitt’s musical language are certainly unique to him — but it’s not foreign. There are moments in Schmitt’s music when you can hear a flavor of other composers like Debussy or Richard Strauss, but Schmitt isn’t copying them. It’s never derivative; it’s simply the world he was part of in that time.
PLN: Tell us about the decision to include the vocal parts in Salomé, as most recordings use an oboe shown in the score as an alternative option to the voice. Do you feel that the vocals add an extra dimension to the music?
JoAnn Falletta: I can see why some conductors would want to use the oboe. It’s already a kind of oriental instrument, and it’s certainly convenient enough if the oboist wants to do it.
Moreover, the score isn’t that clear as to how many female voices to use. You get the feeling that each conductor has to come up with his or her own solution. So in addition to the possible logistical or budgetary challenges of bringing vocalists into an orchestral performance, there’s also the issue of what kind of voices to include.
We’re using 15 voices, which is similar to the number Tortelier has on his Chandos recording with the São Paulo Orchestra. On the other hand, Ronald Zollman used an entire chorus in his recent UNAM [Mexico City] televised performance that’s been uploaded to YouTube.
We’ve been experimenting with how many voices to bring in at different places in the score — although in general terms we begin with Susan alone and then add progressively more singers.
I think it boils down to wanting to do what the composer preferred, which was to include the voices. It makes the recording more “authentic” in that way.
Susan Platts: To my mind, having the voice instead of the oboe makes it a more personal experience. Not that an instrument like the oboe can’t transmit that kind of a mood, but a voice is a voice — it’s transmitting the story in the first-person. The oboe may be fine at telling the story, but the voice is the story in this case.
In addition, I’m finding that having young supporting voices is working very well in creating the right atmosphere. I like that I’m offstage for the first part of the solo — as a kind of disembodied sound. And then adding progressively more voices works really well.
PLN: As you’ve mentioned, all of the BPO musicians are performing both scores for the very first time. What has been the atmosphere during rehearsals?
JoAnn Falletta: The atmospherics have been very good. People have come to the rehearsals well-prepared. I guess they noticed the important solos they have that are challenging and that they’ve obviously worked out well in advance. Many of our musicians appear to be really getting into the music. It helps when they’ve been given so many wonderful solo passages to play, of course.
Interestingly, I’ve noticed how some of the musicians have changed their approach as we’ve worked through our rehearsals. That fluidity is welcome to see.
And then the fast sections of the piece are very exciting in their own right. The rhythmic delineation is also important — such as in the 5/4 measures with the triplet to the quadruple — and it’s been important to get that clarity for the most maximum impact.
PLN: What other pieces by Florent Schmitt are going to be included in the upcoming NAXOS recording, and when do you anticipate it being released?
JoAnn Falletta: Next spring we are planning to perform and record Schmitt’s ballet Oriane and the Prince of Love, written in the 1930s, along with an earlier work, Musiques de plein air — that one a world premiere recording — which will round out the disk. We’re hoping that NAXOS will release the recording in 2020, helping to mark Florent Schmitt’s 150th birthday anniversary.
As for the programming strategy for developing the recording, since we were going to be doing Schmitt’s most famous piece we thought it would be worthwhile to include lesser-known works alongside it. Salomé may be the draw for buying the recording because more people will know that composition, but then they’ll make some wonderful discoveries with these other pieces, too.
Also, the four works take us from 1898 to the mid-1930’s, so we’re able to experience a progression of Schmitt’s development as a composer — how his style evolved over time. Those are two important aspects of his artistry — his great longevity and his unceasing activity throughout his career. What we come to realize is that all along, Schmitt kept writing and evolving.
PLN: In closing, are there any additional points you would like to make about Florent Schmitt or the pieces included in this weekend’s concerts and recording?
JoAnn Falletta: The main point is that Schmitt’s music is endlessly interesting — and often tremendously exciting. It’s evocative; it’s haunting. Think about the first part of Salomé on the terrace of King Herod’s palace: The music is beautiful, yet tinged with a kind of evil foreboding. There’s something dark about it — yet irresistible as well.
For Susan and me, discovering Florent Schmitt’s music has been a very rewarding experience — and there’s still much more to explore!
Having observed the Buffalo Philharmonic recording session following the weekend’s concerts, I can report with confidence that the music on the new Florent Schmitt CD will be every bit as significant and important as the 2015 NAXOS release. And to have it released during Schmitt’s 150th birthday anniversary year will be icing on the cake.
Update (9/18/20): NAXOS has announced that the new recording will be released in early November of this year. It will be available worldwide in streaming, download and physical form.