“It’s as though someone said to you: ‘Throw yourself from a fourth floor window — and mind you, fall gracefully.'”
— Claire Croiza, French soprano
Considering that 2020 marks the 150th birthday anniversary of French composer Florent Schmitt, who lived from 1870 to 1958, it isn’t surprising that the milestone would be marked by the release of several new recordings this year that are devoted to the composer’s music.
The first of these is a recording devoted to the vocal music of Schmitt. It’s an intriguing collection of items that spans a half-century of the composer’s creative output. Taken as a group, the vocal works chosen for this recording illustrate Schmitt’s fascinating evolution as an artist, with the earliest of the pieces dating from 1895 (age 25) and the latest from 1943 (age 73).
The guiding light behind the project is Edward Rushton, a pianist originally from England but who has lived and worked in Switzerland for many years as a collaborative pianist working with a variety of vocalists and instrumentalists. Among the musicians with whom Rushton has performed and made recordings are the Anglo-German baritone Simon Wallfisch and the American-born European saxophonist Harry White.
The music of Florent Schmitt has been an abiding love of Edward Rushton for three decades, during which time he has been able to study the composer’s piano and vocal scores. The idea for preparing a recording devoted exclusively to the vocal music of Schmitt gelled in more recent times in parallel with the pianist concertizing in Switzerland and France with five fellow musicians:
- Sybille Diethelm, soprano
- Annina Haug, mezzo-soprano
- Nino Aurelio Gmünder, tenor
- René Perler, bass-baritone
- Fabienne Romer, pianist
The project consists of seven sets of pieces, programmed on the new recording in order of their creation as follows:
- 3 Mélodies, Op. 4 (1895) [premiere recording of #1 and #3 of the set]
- 2 Chansons, Op. 18 (1901) [premiere recording]
- Chansons à quatre voix, Op. 39 (1905) [premiere recording of the original scoring for four solo vocalists]
- 4 Lieds, Op. 45 (1912) [premiere recording]
- Kérob-Shal, Op. 67 (1924) [premiere recording]
- 4 Poèmes de Ronsard, Op. 100 (1942)
- 3 Chants, Op. 98 (1943)
The recording sessions occurred towards the end of January 2020, and the recording is now in the midst of being prepared for a September release on the Resonus Classics label. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit with Edward Rushton and ask him about the new recording, the inspiration behind it, and how the project came together. Highlights of our very interesting discussion are presented below:
PLN: Your project to record selections from Florent Schmitt’s vast trove of vocal music is quite interesting – and it fills a significant gab in the discography of the composer. What was the genesis of the recording – the “back story,” if you will?
ER: The musicians who sing and play on the recording had already come together a number of times over the past few years to rehearse and perform Chansons à quatre voix — one of the featured items in the recorded program. It had long been my dream to prepare a proper recording of this piece — as opposed to settling for a lesser-quality one of a live performance — to do this work full justice and to present it to the wider world.
With that as the core item, it was then a great pleasure to explore Schmitt’s further creations for solo voice and piano, and to make a selection for a the full CD program.
PLN: Within the catalogue of Florent Schmitt’s compositions we find a great many vocal pieces. What was the “strategy” behind putting together the program that you prepared for this release?
ER: Thanks to the Op. 39 Chansons being the centerpiece of the disc, we had four singers — one of each “type” — plus two pianists at our disposal. With those resources, we could really sink our teeth into an ambitious selection of Florent Schmitt’s songs for solo voice and piano. I wanted to select chansons across the entire range of Schmitt’s compositional output, and I was also keen to involve all four of our singers equally, in order to guarantee as much variety in the program as possible.
As it turned out, involving all of the singers proved somewhat challenging as Schmitt, like most composers of songs, it seems, preferred writing for higher voices. Nevertheless, we were able to allocate solo songs to all four singers, and only had to transpose two of them down a tone.
As for the pianists — Fabienne Romer and me — we divided up the duties pretty equally, to share the load. (Some of the pieces are fiendishly difficult and need hours and hours of preparation …)
PLN: What was the process by which you investigated various pieces and weighed whether to include them in the recording? How extensive was the investigation, and over what time period?
ER: This project has had a relatively long gestation period. During the period from about 2013 to 2017 I was gathering songs. Most of the scores turned out to be available online via IMSLP — what a fabulous resource that is — and I found some other items through antiquarian dealers and libraries with the help of my colleague René Perler, the bass singer on our recording.
In the end, we decided to include only complete opuses — and as it happens, all of the music scores we recorded are available online. (Note to all musicians: Get in there and use it!) I think the end result makes for a much more satisfactory disc; I do like that feeling of complete works and not a patchwork quilt of “highlights.”
As for any potential concerns that an album devoted entirely to vocal music of a single composer might come off as being a little repetitive or monochromatic, Schmitt has made life so easy for us! In terms of our recording having spice and variety, there is such a great arc from the romantic musical language of Schmitt’s early compositions through the wild songs of the 1910s and 20s — and then through to the greater clarity of the later works.
That being said, I’d love to do a follow-up project at some stage in order to include some of the works we missed this time around due to timing limitations — for example the late-career Quatre Monocantes from 1949, which look very interesting indeed!
PLN: Tell us a little about the pieces you’ve selected that are world premieres on the new recording? What you find particularly interesting about them?
ER: When I first delved into this project, I was amazed that so few of the songs had ever been recorded! The three chansons that make up the Op. 4 include a setting of Paul Verlaine’s poem “Il pleure dans mon coeur” [“Tears Fall in My Heart”], which seems to have been obligatory for all French — and many international — composers of that period to set to music. I find Schmitt’s musical response to this poetry particularly lovely; it’s worlds apart from the spleenishness of Debussy and Fauré’s settings (to name two of the most familiar settings.
The first song in the group, titled simply “Lied,” is striking in the deliberate monotony of the vocal line amidst very daring chromatic twisting in the piano’s lines and harmonies. And the third song — “Fils de la vierge” [“Gossamer”] — is marvelously voluptuous.
Op. 18 consists of just two songs which couldn’t deliver a starker contrast. The first, titled “Neige, cœeur et lys ” [“Snow, Heart and Lily”], remains gloomy despite the poet’s assertion towards the end that there is the hope of transcendence if the heart remains pure …
And then the fantastically biting “Chanson bretonne” that follows parades Schmitt’s gallows humor as well as his talent for parody; the music that describes a little boy’s life in heaven amongst the blue angels is like a miniature Puccini aria.
It’s pretty much all darkness again in Opus 45 Lieds, where Schmitt pushes tonal relations to the absolute limit. Indeed, some harmonies defy categorization.
… And in Kérob-Shal, he goes completely crazy. The music is so manic and so changeable — which is of course what gives the piece such startling appeal. (It’s my own personal favorite of all the works we present on the recording.)
PLN: Turning to the pieces that are not premiere recordings – a similar question: What have you found sufficiently interesting and engaging about them to warrant making new recordings?
ER: Of the Chansons à quatre voix, there seems to exist only a single earlier recording, but with a full choir. The acoustical and musical qualities don’t make that recording very representative. To my mind, presenting the music as originally envisioned by the composer — with four individual singers as opposed to a chorus — makes the most sense: there’s much greater punch and clarity in both the music and the words.
As for the two later sets from the early 1940s — the Op. 98 Chants and the Op. 100 Ronsard Poems (despite the opus numbers, the Ronsard was composed a year before the Chants), I was actually unaware of the previous recordings until well into the rehearsal process when our tenor, Nino Aurelio Gmünder, pointed them out to us on YouTube.
Featuring soprano Yolanda Marcoulescou and pianist Katja Phillabaum, they are fine recordings, I think — if possibly a little cautious in some of the tempos. But we needed some late works to complement the rest of the program, and the contrasting sound-worlds of these two opuses fit the bill, especially the crisp and brittle neoclassical tones of the Ronsard cycle.
… Not to mention that the sheer hilarity of the fable that rounds out Op. 98 — “La Tortue et le lièvre” [“The Tortoise and the Hare”] — makes a great finale to our recorded program.
PLN: Can you tell us about the team of musicians assembled for the recording? What exposure, if any, had they had to the music of Florent Schmitt prior to becoming involved in this project?
ER: I think I’m correct that all of them came into contact with Florent Schmitt only through my initiative — or rather, through my bugging them to take part! But no one needed much convincing, as they could all recognize the quality, the beauty and the value of the music.
All of the performers are mutual colleagues and, in some cases, friends. They are all first-rate musicians from Switzerland, with active solo and stage careers.
PLN: Now that you and your team have spent a good deal of time living with these compositions, what observations can you make about how Schmitt wrote for the human voice? Does the music “lay well,” or are there particular challenges that need to be met?
ER: Listening to the singers in rehearsal and on recordings, it seems that Florent Schmitt wrote extremely well for the voice. In any case, I’ve never heard any complaints from the singers on that score. The bigger challenges lie more in the music’s sometimes-complex rhythmical structures — and in getting Schmitt’s rich and sometimes unexpected harmonic language into one’s ears and voice.
In some instances, the piano and vocal lines do not support each other harmonically or melodically, but instead complement each other to weave a dizzyingly complex tapestry. The end result is fascinating and wonderful — but it can take a lot of effort in rehearsal to get it just right.
PLN: Please tell us about your pianist collaborator, Fabienne Romer, on the recording. Had the two of you worked together prior to making this new disk? How did you decide which pianist would be “assigned” to each piece on the recording?
ER: I got to know Fabienne Romer through our mutual colleague, Sybille Diethelm, who is the featured soprano on our recording. Fabienne and Sybille studied together in Munich and have worked together in song partnership for many years. When I met Sybille and started working with her, it was only natural that Fabienne would soon follow.
Fabienne and I have played several piano duet recitals together, and I’ve always relished playing the Chansons à quatre voix with her (they really are tremendous fun!). In short, I love playing with Fabienne; she has such a warm sound and a true affinity for texts. She’s the “genuine article” when it comes to sensitive and sympathetic collaborative pianism — particularly when performing with vocalists.
PLN: Have you presented any of the pieces you’re recording in public? What has been the audience response?
ER: We’ve done the Chansons à quatre voix in concert many times, and they’re always an audience favorite. Prior to and while preparing for our recording sessions, we performed the entire CD program twice — once in Zürich and once in Basel. The audiences loved the music, found it fascinating — sometimes challenging — and thought it unjustly neglected.
Interestingly, there was a diversity of audience favorites. Some audience members have preferred the more lyrical and romantic pieces while finding the Op. 67 or Op. 98 songs a little harder to come to grips with. Others have reveled more in Schmitt’s extravagances and adventurousness in those works.
PLN: Please tell us a little about the recording sessions and the production team.
ER: We recorded the music in Zürich in January 2020, at the Swiss Radio Studio there. Our producer and sound engineer was the very fine Andreas Werner.
The recording will be released on the Resonus Classics label, a respected independent record label based in the UK. I am personally familiar with the label,having recorded two other vocal disks with them previously — both featuring the baritone Simon Wallfisch.
The release of the new album was originally planned for early summer, although unfortunately that schedule has had to be adjusted a little due to coronavirus-related delays.
I’d also like to mention that the recording project was made possible thanks in part to the financial support of Florent Schmitt devotees all over the world. While the bulk of our funding was raised in Europe, I’m pleased to report that measurable support came from music-lovers in North America as well.
PLN: In addition to the recording of Florent Schmitt’s vocal works, are there other projects that you and/or your team of musicians are working on currently, or planned for the future?
ER: When the recordings comes out, the plan is to present entire program in concert form, so we’ll be reunited in the autumn or winter hopefully — although this depends on the COVID-19 situation, of course. Beyond that, since we all know each other very well, we’ll certainly continue to play and sing together fairly regularly, although it’s unlikely that this same exact ensemble will reconvene for additional recordings.
Already since January, I’ve had the pleasure of performing the Op. 4 and Op. 18 songs in concert with several of our soloists.
PLN: Are there any further observations you would like to make about Florent Schmitt and his musical legacy?
ER: … Only to say that I’m incredibly happy and proud to have spearheaded this project. I’ve been a particular fan of Florent Schmitt’s music for around thirty years now. It feels really great to make a valuable contribution to Schmitt’s reputation as a composer of songs, and to give his vocal music wider exposure than it’s received up until now.
We are in complete agreement with Rushton’s sentiments, and look forward with anticipation to the new recording’s release — which as of this writing is scheduled for September 2020. Conductors should also take note, as Florent Schmitt orchestrated a number of these vocal compositions as well — namely the Opp. 18, 67, 98, and 100 sets.
Update (8/1/20): The fundraising campaign was a success, with donations being received from Florent Schmitt devotees all over the world. As a result, the first-ever recording 100% devoted to the composer’s vocal works has now been released. Included on the new album are world premiere recordings of three vocal sets:
- Trois chansons, Op. 4
- Quatre lieds, Op. 45
- Kérob-Shal, Op. 67
The new recording is now available for purchase from online music sites worldwide as well as on the Resonus Classics website.