It will be just the third time the work has been commercially recorded — and the first one in more than three decades.
Among French composer Florent Schmitt’s extensive chamber music creations are a string trio and string quartet that he composed during the waning days of World War II and immediately following. It was a time when Schmitt was focusing more on compositions written for smaller groups of instrumentalists — strings, woodwinds, brass, and a combination of the three.
Both the String Trio, Op. 105 and the String Quartet, Op. 112 are notorious for their complexity — both in terms of the musical qualities (polytonality taken to the max) as well as the technical challenges for the performers.
Reportedly, the musicians devoted an entire year to preparing their interpretation of Schmitt’s Trio before premiering the work in recital in 1946 and taking it on tour — including to the United States.
The Pasquier Trio also made the first recording of the piece — which surely must be one of the rarest Pathé 78-rpm sets in existence. Never reissued in LP or CD formats, the Pathé recording has been made available to modern-day music-lovers only recently through an upload to YouTube, courtesy of the fine Shellackophile music channel.
The commitment that the Pasquier brothers made to preparing Schmitt’s String Trio for performance set a standard that has been followed by others in the ensuing decades. The only other commercial recording to-date was made in the 1980s by the Albert Roussel String Trio — reportedly after similarly intensive preparation.
Other musicians have investigated the music and have decided against performing it. The American cellist and recording artist Samuel Magill noted his experience with Schmitt’s String Trio several decades ago:
“Two friends and musical colleagues of mine spent some time trying to learn this magnificent work — but as we were busy members of the MET Orchestra, gave up on it. It is extraordinarily difficult!”
Fast-forward to more recent times, when I learned of the Netherlands-based Prisma String Trio (PRISMA Strijktrio) and its involvement with the piece. To my knowledge, Prisma is the only chamber music ensemble anywhere in the world at present that keeps Schmitt’s String Trio in its active repertoire.
In early 2018, I had the opportunity to interview Michiel Weidner, Prisma’s cellist, about the work’s many challenges. Weidner has characterized the piece as “the most challenging work ever written for string trio.”
He explains further:
“So dense, so many notes, so many double-stops. So hard to play in tune together, so tricky to balance and to make it sound natural. But what special notes they are!”
As with the Pasquier Trio decades before, the members of the Prisma Trio — Weidner along with violinist Janneke van Prooijen and violist Elisabeth Smalt — took extensive time to master the work’s many challenges before adding it to their repertoire. They even went so far as to present individual movements in recital as they learned them, soliciting feedback from fellow musicians and audience members along the way.
As Weidner explained to me:
“We could perform each single movement of the Trio for a small but engaged audience and receive valuable feedback each time, which was especially worthwhile for a work as challenging as this one.
[We found that] listeners were overwhelmed — even flabbergasted — at the fullness of the sound, the passion in the music, and also the music’s warmth. We heard no comments from anyone about being unable to ‘connect’ with the music, or finding it difficult to comprehend.
Indeed, some highly informed and musically astute members of the audience were absolutely astonished that they had never heard this music before — and generally were quite unaware of the quality and beauty of Florent Schmitt’s music.”
At the time of the 2018 interview, the Prisma musicians expressed hope that a day would come when they could make a recording of Florent Schmitt’s String Trio.
And now, several years later, that dream is becoming a reality. Hearing this welcome news, I recontacted Prisma and visited with violinist Janneke van Prooijen about the latest developments. Highlights of that discussion are shown below:
PLN: Music-lovers around the world are very pleased to learn that the first recording in more than 30 years of Florent Schmitt’s String Trio is now becoming a reality. What can you tell us about the recording plans?
JvP: We too are very excited about this new project! The recording dates have been set for July 13-15, and we will record in the beautiful acoustics of the Westvestkerk in Schiedam [Netherlands].
PLN: Florent Schmitt’s String Trio is around 30 minutes in length. What other pieces are you planning to include on the recording — by Schmitt or other composers?
JvP: We haven’t finalized the other repertoire for the CD quite yet, although our plan is to include other pieces created by composers who were close associates of Florent Schmitt; Darius Milhaud is one we’re considering strongly, for example. So it will be a recording devoted to several composers rather than just one.
PLN: Which label will be releasing your recording?
JvP: It will be released by Cobra Records, which is a really top-quality classical label based in our country. We are excited to be working with Cobra and their very fine recording engineer, Tom Peeters. The CD will have worldwide distribution.
PLN: How did the resource planning come together to allow the recording project to move forward at this time?
JvP: Fortunately for us, a generous financial subsidy has been granted by the Sena Performers Music Production Fund towards realizing the recording. However, additional funds are needed, and so we are planning a crowdfunding initiative that will launch most likely this coming October — stay tuned!
We are hopeful that like-minded lovers of Florent Schmitt’s music — and chamber music in general — will be inspired to contribute to this crowdfunding endeavor.
PLN: When do you anticipate the recording to be released?
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact on our touring schedule, so we are now looking at a release date sometime during the spring of 2021.
In the meantime, we’re in the process of developing plans for our tour. We’d appreciate learning of any chamber music program series, recital halls or other venues that might be interested in hosting us.
PLN: Do you have any additional thoughts or insights to share about Florent Schmitt’s String Trio?
JvP: Right now, we’re involved in rehearsing for the recording. Even though we’ve studied and played this music for a number of years, it still requires intensive preparation!
During our last rehearsal, Elisabeth [Prisma String Trio’s violist] sighed: “An extra finger would be useful …”
It is an understatement!
We plan to follow Prisma’s activities closely as they gear up to make their new recording of Schmitt’s String Trio — including reporting on the fundraising initiative once it launches. Judging from the deep commitment that these musical artists have made to this very special piece of music, there’s little doubt that the new recording will be a superb one.
Update (7/16/20): The Prisma String Quartet’s recording session for Schmitt’s Trio is now in the can, having occurred on July 15-16, 2020. Cobra Records’ recording engineer Tom Peeters was the lead audio technician on the project.
Of the recording session, Janneke van Prooijen reported:
“Tom Peeters captured a most beautiful sound in the Westvest Church. For the Prisma Trio the session was, as expected, extremely challenging — but even more rewarding!”
Here are several photos taken during the recording session.