Pianist Biljana Urban talks about her new recording featuring world premiere renditions of works by Florent Schmitt.

Five premiere recordings are part of the new collection devoted to the solo piano music of the composer, scheduled for release in October 2021 on NAXOS’s Grand Piano label.

Biljana Urban pianist

Biljana Urban (Photo: Claudia Prieler)

Throughout his long career, French composer Florent Schmitt created many piano compositions — a body of work spanning more than a half-century from the early 1890s to the late 1940s. It’s true that Schmitt often referred to the piano as “a convenient but disappointing substitute for the orchestra,” but the reality is that he was a fine pianist himself, and his compositions for the instrument successfully exploited pianistic possibilities to the greatest possible degree.

Many of Schmitt’s solo piano pieces have been commercially recorded, including collections by performers such as Laurent Wagschal, Annie D’Arco, Pascal Le Corre, Ivo Kaltchev, Vincent Larderet and Angéline Pondepeyre. Still, a surprising number of them have yet to receive their first commercial recordings — in some cases more than a century after they were created.

That situation is being redressed in some measure by the release of a new collection of Florent Schmitt’s solo piano works planned for October 2021 on NAXOS’s Grand Piano imprint.  The soloist on the new recording is Biljana Urban, a French-trained pianist who is based in Amsterdam today. (You can view a short pre-release trailer about the new release here.)

Jan Urban

The composer Jan Urban (1875-1952), Biljana Urban’s grandfather.

A NAXOS and Grand Piano recording artist, Biljana Urban comes from a family with a rich classical musical tradition. Her Czech-born grandfather was a composer and conductor — some of whose works she has recorded. Urban has also recorded the complete piano works of Jan Václav Voříšek for the Grand Piano label.

By birth and background, Biljana Urban is imbued with a truly European heritage. Of Czech and Serbian origin, she has dual Dutch and Croatian nationality in addition to having lived in France for many years. Besides concertizing, teaching and presenting master classes throughout the world, Urban has served as artist-in-residence at California State University in Fresno and is currently collaborating with the Exilarte Centre at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna.

As her new Florent Schmitt recording project began to take shape, Biljana Urban reached out to me several years ago, asking for information on the composer’s solo piano pieces that had not received their first commercial recording. After providing to her a list of various works that would quality for inclusion, Miss Urban explored the scores, ultimately deciding on five world premieres from Schmitt’s early compositional period, along with one additional (non-premiere) work.

The five premieres on the new recording include:

  • Prélude triste, Op. 3, No. 1 (1895)
  • Ballade de la neige, Op. 6 (1895)
  • Neuf pièces, Op. 27 (1903)
  • Pupazzi, Op. 36 (1907)
  • Ritournelle, Op. 2 bis (1925)

Florent Schmitt Piano Music Biljana Urban NAXOS Grand Piano

Recently,  I had the opportunity to visit with Biljana Urban to learn more about her strategy in coming up with the program that comprises the new recording of solo piano music by Schmitt. Our interview was conducted in English, and highlights of the discussion are presented below.

PLN:  When did you first become acquainted with Florent Schmitt and his music?

BLU:  My first encounter with Florent Schmitt was through the writings of the famous French pianist Alfred Cortot in the second volume of his two books on French piano music. But I do not recall seeing Schmitt’s name on French music programs in the 1980s — or even later. Fortunately, this is changing now.

Alfred Cortot La Musique Francaise de Piano Vol. 2 1932

Volume 2 of Alfred Cortot’s famous books about French piano music, published in 1932, contains a full chapter devoted to the works of Florent Schmitt.

Nadia Boulanger

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)

As for the first pieces by Schmitt that I knew, they included the piano work Crépuscules.  I also admired his powerful Psaume XLVII, and the fact that Nadia Boulanger was the organist at the premiere performance of that work only increased my curiosity – and admiration. 

Later, when I heard what the poet Léon-Paul Fargue said about the Psalm — that it was “like a crater of music opening up” — it seemed to me that one could also say that about Schmitt’s entire creative output:  It is a huge crater of profound-yet-unknown music, on the planet of the banned.

Florent Schmitt Leon-Paul Fargue Maurice Ravel 1910

A gathering of artistic Paris at Florent Schmitt’s home in St-Cloud in about 1910. Pictured with Schmitt (at left) and his family are Léon-Paul Fargue (third from right) and Maurice Ravel (far right, back to camera).

I could also say that a deeper knowledge of Florent Schmitt and his piano repertoire came from your website about the composer, and from your consummate advocacy for his musical artistry. I thank you for that!

PLN:  What draws you to Florent Schmitt’s musical style?

Durand catalogue 1965 Florent Schmitt

A page from a vintage Durand & Cie. catalogue showing numerous piano works composed by Florent Schmitt.

BLU:  Consulting a few old catalogues of the major French publishers, I’ve been astonished to discover that Florent Schmitt was one of the most prominent figures in France’s “Golden Age” of classical music. In those days, Paris was the center of subtle as well as forthright artistic revolutions – yet at the same time it also tended to preserve the old paths. 

Clearly, a mix of styles including romanticism, impressionism, symbolism, cubism and orientalism influenced Schmitt’s prolific output. Yet paradoxically, one can also say that none of these styles made an indelible mark on his own personal style. This has presented me — as well as other interpreters of Schmitt’s music — with an intriguing and actually quite enjoyable puzzle. 

In Schmitt’s music you will find extremes of fortissimo and pianissimo within the space of just a few measures – also indicating many ritardandos and agogic changes. Sometimes the interpreter has to sacrifice some of these indications with the goal of bringing a composition to a unified whole — developing phrasing while adhering to the shape of the huge architectural arcs — with the integrity of the music being the ultimate goal. 

Above all, what drew me to Schmitt’s music was his special alchemy in melding impressionistic timbres with a Germanic romantic — perhaps even Brahmsian – expressiveness. It’s something that manifests itself in Schmitt’s musical expression — and I consider it nearly unique in that regard.

PLN:  Even though you live in the Netherlands and your ethnicity is Slavic, you seem very rooted in the French culture.  Where does that come from?

BLU:  I settled in Paris in 1985 to study at the École Normale de Musique. I continued to live there for 10 years while performing and teaching. But even more fundamentally, my mother was a professor of French language and literature, which meant that our home was filled with French books and little paintings from the bouquinistes of Paris.  She and I spent many hours watching French films together, too. 

Jean Gabin

Jean Gabin (1904-1976)

So France has imbued my life from my birth, in a way. One of my early heroes was Jean Gabin who starred in the role of Jean Valjean in the French film Les Misérables. My grandmother called me Cossette — or sometimes Gavroche, depending on my degree of obedience! 

Alfred Cortot Florent Schmitt

The French pianist Alfred Cortot (1873-1952), photographed with Florent Schmitt in the early 1950s.

Later, during my adolescence when I became totally absorbed in music, I was fascinated by Cortot’s playing. I can remember listening endlessly to the Cortot LPs that had been licensed to Jugoton Records and that I still own to this day.

Cesar Franck Aldo Ciccolini EMI Jugoton

From Biljana Urban’s music library: Aldo Ciccolini plays piano music of César Franck on a Jugoton LP recording licensed from EMI in the 1970s.

I also admired Aldo Ciccolini, another legendary French pianist, and during my piano studies I became a passionate Debussyist.

Yet it was the music of César Franck that perhaps affected me the most. My first performances included all of Franck’s piano works. Considering this, it seems very fitting that the first teaching job I was offered in Paris was at the École Supérieure César Franck, a conservatory that was located in those days on the Rue Gît-le-Cœur.

Rue Git le Coeur, Paris France

Rue Gît-le-Cœur, Paris

Cesar Franck St-Clotilde

César Franck (1822-1890) at the organ console at St-Clotilde, Paris.

I shall never forget the Sunday mornings when all of Paris was silent, where from my little mansarde-chambre in the 7th arrondissement I would hear the bells of St-Clotilde where César Franck had once been the primary organist.

PLN: Your new recording of Florent Schmitt’s solo piano music will be released on NAXOS’s Grand Piano imprint. This label specializes in world premiere recordings. Which Schmitt selections have you selected that are premieres?

BLU:  My new recording includes five world premieres plus one piece — Crépuscules — that has been recorded several times before. Beginning with the premieres, I selected Neuf pièces mostly for their tender musical expression that is remindful of Schmitt’s own teacher, Gabriel Fauré, who was once described by [French philosopher and musicologist] Vladimir Jankélévitch as “le plus raffine compositeur sur terre” (“the most refined composer on earth”). These along with the Opus 3 Prélude triste express Fauré-like eloquence and the power of pianissimos.

Gabriel Faure, French composer

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), Florent Schmitt’s teacher and mentor.

I thought it would be particularly interesting to show this side of the composer. Florent Schmitt is often characterized as someone with a sense of irony, as well as somewhat impulsive and cynical in nature. These early pieces reveal the refinement and deft touch that Schmitt could also bring to his music — poetic, sensual and intimate.

Pupazzi is another premiere — a set of pieces remindful of Paul Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes that are particularly dear to my heart. I don’t actually know if Verlaine was the inspiration for Schmitt — but he definitely was for me! Indeed, the protagonists of the Pupazzi set — Scaramouche, Clymène, Arlequin, Cassandre, Damis, Eglé, Atys and Aminte — are found in many pages of literature and music throughout the centuries. Here it’s a veritable commedia dell’arte carnival — a procession of marionettes. Clymène in particular is a glistening jewel.

Commedia del'Arte characters

Inspiration down through the centuries: Commedia dell’arte characters.

I also present Ritournelle, a piece that’s listed in the catalogue as Schmitt’s Op. 2 bis but it might not be such an early work. It was published as late as 1925 and possesses the lightness and charm characteristic of French music of the année folles — the Roaring Twenties. It also reminds me of a later Schmitt piece — La Retardée, dating from the year 1936.

The last premiere, Ballade de la neige, closes out the recording.  It’s a piece that is beautifully described by Cortot as “born by vague undulations of contrasting rhythms — suggesting the slow, monotonous falling of snow, a low horizon, a forlorn sky.”

Cortot continues, “A sorrowful melody emerges from the harmonies, expands, contracts again and repeats itself, hollowing out a slow desolate furrow in a moving substance of sound.” To which I can only add, La neige, c’est une enfance: Snow is a childhood.

PLN:  And Crépuscules — why did you choose to include that piece even though it isn’t a world premiere recording?

Florent Schmitt Neige score Crepuscules

A vintage copy of the score to Florent Schmitt’s Crépuscules.

BLU:  Crépuscules is a set of four highly imaginative tone paintings for the piano. The first piece — Sur un vieux petit cimetière — evokes extraordinary timbres that emanate from the rhythmic complexity – like those of Cloches à travers les feuille by Debussy, who was probably the first composer in Western classical music to fully harness and exploit the phenomenon of sonority.

Florent Schmitt and Ralph Vaughan-Williams

Florent Schmitt (l.) and Ralph Vaughan-Williams (r.), photographed in London in 1956. The two composers were friends for more than a half-century, and Schmitt dedicated the first piece in his piano set CrépusculesSur un vieux petit cimetière — to his English counterpart.

Biljana Urban Debussy Scriabin

A Biljana Urban piano recital program featuring the music of Claude Debussy and Alexandre Scriabin.

Likewise, Schmitt was exploring that ineffable quality using his prodigious feeling for harmonization. And yet, contrary to Debussy, Schmitt’s language has something of an exuberant intensity to it; it’s an art of voicing that might bring Scriabin to mind (another composer with whom I have great affinity).

The other three pieces in Crépuscules are equally fascinating. Even though the work has already had several very fine recordings, I wanted to include it on my program — and I also wish to perform it in my recitals along with Debussy’s Images, because Schmitt’s piece is equally winsome!

PLN:  Please tell us a bit about the making of the new Florent Schmitt recording. For starters, where was it recorded?

Hertz-zaal TivoliVredenburg Utrecht

The TivoliVredenburg Hertz-saal auditorium in Utrecht.

BLU:  All of my recordings are made in the Netherlands, my home country, in collaboration with Trivoli Vredenburg in Utrecht and its excellent concert venues. I am particularly fond of the warm, soulful, oval space of the Hertz-zaal where the Florent Schmitt album was recorded.

Tom Peeters Producer Recording Engineer

Producer and recording engineer Tom Peeters was the Tonmeister on two Florent Schmitt recordings released in 2021: Biljana Urban’s piano music recording on the Grand Piano label and the PRISMA Strijktrio’s recording of the String Trio on the Cobra Records label.

The sound engineer was Tom Peeters, an award-winning Tonmeister and producer. His skills are such that a BBC Music Magazine review once stated that Tom’s recordings are an art in themselves!

I’m also very happy to report that the very informative notes for the CD booklet sleeve have been prepared by the fine French musicologist Gérald Hugon.

Furthermore, I’m grateful for several of my friends and adult students — Mrs. Mies van Genderen, Mr. Johan Kappelhof and Mr. Hans Canton — who provided invaluable financial support for making the recording possible.

As an interesting adjunct to this project, I have also recorded music for an art film featuring the characters of Paul Verlaine and Florent Schmitt, which has been produced by filmmaker Toon de Zoeten and composer-sonologist Daniel Schorno and is now in the post-production phase.

PLN:  This isn’t your first recording project with Grand Piano. Can you tell us a little about your other activities with this label?

Jan Václav Hugo Voříšek

Jan Václav Hugo Voříšek (1791-1825)

BLU:  Yes, I undertook an earlier project for Grand Piano, recording the complete piano works of Czech composer Jan Václav Hugo Voříšek — a total of three CDs.

Researching Voříšek‘s life bought me to the land of my ancestors where I came across the neglected treasure-box of Czech composers working in Vienna in the time of the Habsburg ascendancy.

Vorisek Piano Music Urban

Biljana Urban’s three-volume Voříšek piano music project for Grand Piano (2014-16).

My research revealed that Voříšek‘s Rhapsodies, Op. 1 are not intended to be played as studies, nor are they meant to be flamboyant pieces.  This perspective was contrary to established musicological views on the subject (and also to previous performances of the music).

As an outgrowth of the Voříšek project, I am looking into the possibility of recording more unexplored Czech piano music for the Grand Piano label.

Biljana Urban Benjamin Michael Haas

Biljana Urban photographed with music historian, author and producer Benjamin Michael Haas.

Also for NAXOS, I’ve recorded an album of piano music of my Czech-born grandfather, Jan Jovan Urban. That project led to encounters with Benjamin Michael Haas, the noted author, twentieth century music historian and one-time producer at Decca Records. Michael found the case of my grandfather fascinating and worthy of further exploration, for which I am grateful.

PLN: One final question: You have titled your new Florent Schmitt recording “Solitude.” Can you explain the meaning behind the title?

BLU:  “Solitude” is the title of the fourth and final piece in Crépuscules, and the score is headed with this quotation from the poet Léon-Paul Fargue: “In the end, everything that we love tends to leave us. Alone … we are always alone.”

Biljana Urban

Biljana Urban and her mother, Milica Urban, to whom the new Florent Schmitt recording is dedicated.

All of the references to France and French culture that I’ve been speaking about in this interview resonate deeply within me.

In that spirit, I have dedicated this new release to my beloved mother who passed away at the time of the recording — and who, from my earliest childhood years on, kindled in me a special love for la douce France.

Forent Schmitt Solitude Piano Works Biljana Urban NAXOS Grand Piano

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We are indebted to Biljana Urban for taking up the cause of Florent Schmitt’s early piano works. The five premiere recordings in particular promise to be major additions to the catalogue. The recording is scheduled for release in October 2021 — offered in both physical and streaming/download form and available worldwide from all major online classical music vendors. It is already available for pre-order at Amazon, Presto Music and other sellers.

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