In early March 2020, I had the opportunity to attend what turned out to be the very last public performances of Florent Schmitt’s orchestral before the Coronavirus pandemic effectively shut down classical concerts across the globe.
Those concerts, presented by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of JoAnn Falletta, were noteworthy not only because the rarity of the repertoire selected — the suite from Schmitt’s ballet Oriane et le Prince d’Amour along with the composer’s own violin arrangement of Légende — but also in the quality of the performances.
As it turns out, there was another concert featuring the music of Florent Schmitt that also slipped in just under the wire. On February 7, 2020, the Austrian conductor Gottfried Rabl directed the premiere performance in Romania of Florent Schmitt’s stunning 1904 choral work Psaume XLVII, Op. 38, leading the Transylvanian State Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir of Cluj-Napoca, along with soprano Aida Pavăl-Olaru as the featured soloist.
This wasn’t the first Romanian premiere of a composition by Florent Schmitt that Maestro Rabl had presented; in 2016, he led the Moldovan Philharmonic Orchestra of Iași in the Romanian premiere of Schmitt’s ballet La Tragédie de Salomé, following that up by presenting that same composition with the Cluj-Napoca players in 2018.
Indeed, Maestro Rabl has been an advocate for the composer’s music over his 30+ year career as a choral and orchestral director. This includes making a recording of Schmitt’s 1944 a capella work A contre-voix, done in 1991 with the Austrian Radio Chorus.
A native of Vienna where he also received his musical training, Rabl has had a long career leading orchestras on four continents, along with making numerous recordings with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and other ensembles. He is particularly active in Central Europe, Asia and the Balkans, where in addition to being a regular conductor of the Transylvanian State Philharmonic, he guest-conducts many other orchestras.
Not long after Maestro Rabl’s performance of Psaume XLVII, I had the opportunity to ask the conductor about his experience in preparing the music for the concert. Highlights of our discussion are presented below:
PLN: You were very fortunate to be able to present Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII when you did, seeing as how it predated the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe by a matter of just a few weeks.
WGR: Indeed, I was really lucky to get the Psalm done just before the outbreak. Here we are just a few weeks later, and we are at a complete standstill in the cultural life of Europe.
PLN: What was it like to rehearse with the musicians before the concert?
WGR: The Psalm is a challenging piece for the choir, which must have good technical quality to make a success of the piece. I like the choir of Cluj a lot, and together we’ve performed a number of rather unknown repertoire such as Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony and Constant Lambert’s Rio Grande. Its director, Cornel Groza, is a wonderful and highly professional musician; I cannot be more grateful for his perfect preparation of the choir.
As for Aida Pavăl-Olaru, our soprano soloist, she really loved the piece and knew the whole score very well, which of course was very helpful for the preparation. Her voice had an intrinsically beautiful color, nicely blending with the sound of the solo violin that precedes her entrance in the score.
PLN: What about the orchestra? I’ve heard from other conductors who have prepared the Psalm that the musicians can find this music quite challenging.
WGR: I guess you could say that the orchestra reacted as expected. In the first two days of rehearsals I could see plenty of tight faces and wrinkles on foreheads — as is quite normal at the initial reading of a totally unknown piece of music.
But as soon as the choir joined the rehearsals, it was a different picture. In the end, I think most everyone liked the music and thought of the Psalm as a really grand piece.
Incidentally, this was exactly the same journey we experienced with La Tragédie de Salomé two years earlier.
PLN: How would you characterize the performance?
WGR: The orchestra doesn’t record its concerts anymore due to financial considerations, so unfortunately I don’t have an audio document that I can go back and reference. But I think I conducted the piece in just over 26 minutes, which was my intention for the interpretation.
The music got the necessary drive in the lively outer parts — but more importantly, the emotions really soared in the extraordinarily beautiful central section of the Psalm with the solo soprano — which also happens to be my favorite part of the piece.
PLN: What was the audience’s reaction to the music?
WGR: Sadly, the concert hall was not full, but the audience seems to have been very impressed by what they heard. There was long applause following the performance, and the people who came backstage after the concert were quite overwhelmed with the colors and rhythmic power of the Psalm.
It’s a pity that there is a tradition of performing only one show per concert program in many European countries rather than two or three, as this would have provided an opportunity for more people to experience the piece, no doubt inspired by reading the favorable concert review in the Siebenbürgen regional newspaper.
PLN: In what ways have your impressions about the Psalm changed, if any, as a result of leading this music in performance?
WGR: Each time I look at the score, I realize more and more how incredibly well the piece is constructed — formally , harmonically and thematically. How Schmitt, with relatively little material, has managed to create such a huge, homogenous piece is amazing — and outstanding. I don’t even need to mention the orchestral colors, as Schmitt was an undisputed genius at orchestration.
Without question, it was worth every minute of preparation to present this premiere, and hopefully Florent Schmitt is no longer an “unknown” name in Romania.
PLN: Looking to the future, do you have further plans to present Psalm 47 or any other music by Florent Schmitt in concert?
WGR: I will definitely try to get more Florent Schmitt on future programs. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, no one knows how long it will be until cultural life will be up and running again; unfortunately, I think it will take quite some time. Therefore, I set my eyes on 2021 and on some of Schmitt’s lesser-known compositions.
But beyond his orchestral pieces, I am very anxious to play his Piano Quintet — together with the quintets by Taneyev and Kapustin. In fact, that Schmitt score is on my piano at this very moment!
We share Gottfried Rabl’s hope that he will be able to program more of Florent Schmitt’s music in the future — particularly in regions of the world where the composer is not yet very well-known. Speaking personally, I remember how surprised (and delighted) the audience was when Psaume XLVII received its Polish premiere performances in Krakow in 2016. Surely the reaction would be the same elsewhere.