On October 22, 2022, violinist John McLaughlin Williams and pianist Matthew Bengtson presented an intriguing program of music at a Steinway Society of Michigan event in Detroit. Featured were two rarities — the Frühlings-Sonate by Joseph Marx and the Tallahassee Suite by Cyril Scott — along with Florent Schmitt’s formidable Sonate libre en deux parties enchaînées (ad modem clementis aquæ), Opus 68, composed in 1918-19.
The Sonate libre isn’t as obscure as the Marx and Scott works; indeed, it has been commercially recorded five times (three of them in the past eight years). But the piece isn’t a repertoire staple either, and opportunities to experience the music in concert are hard to come by.
One performer who has championed the piece is the American violinist and conductor John McLaughlin Williams. He first presented the composition in recital at the Cleveland Institute of Music in the 1990s, teaming up with pianist David Riley to deliver two impressive performances there. Each of them is available to hear — one on SoundCloud and the other on YouTube. I am well-familiar with those performancs; to my ears, they’re among the most compelling interpretations of the music — even when compared to commercial recordings of the piece. So naturally I welcomed the opportunity to see him perform the work in concert — not only for the interpretation but also for the viscerally exciting experience of hearing the piece live.
My high hopes were completely met in the vital, emotionally gripping performance that was delivered by Williams and Bengtson. To say the least, immersing oneself deeply in the Sonate libre in a way that can only be fully achieved in a live performance was very fulfilling.
In the years leading up to this latest performance of the Sonate libre, Williams had been seeking a piano partner for it — pretty unsuccessfully as it turns out. For the reason why, we can turn to comments he has made about the music, and how violinists and pianists typically respond when they encounter it:
“It is such a great piece. You can easily wonder why it isn’t performed more, and I can answer authoritatively that violinists look at the score and say, ‘WTF!’. Some will never show it to a pianist because they cannot comprehend what they are looking at. Sonate libre is modern music that begins stylistically where Debussy and Ravel left off. While harmonically their influence is detectable, it is actually anticipatory of Messiaen, while texturally it inhabits the world of the younger Dutilleux.”
But as it turns out, the Sonate libre was a natural fit for Bengtson — a pianist who excels at the music of Scriabin, Szymanowski and other composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Following the October 22nd recital, I was able to interview Messrs. Williams and Bengtson about their musical journey with Schmitt’s Sonate libre. Highlights of our interesting and insightful discussion are presented below.
PLN: How did you first become acquainted with the music of Florent Schmitt? What attracted you to his music?
John McLaughlin Williams: I first learned of Florent Schmitt in the 1980s when I was living in New York. Through mutual friends I met a man named Bradley Pfaller who was a trained pianist, but who had a day job as a postman. He knew a great deal of obscure chamber music by composers like Joseph Jongen and Egon Kornauth, and he would host get-togethers where we would read through these scores.
One of those pieces was the big Piano Quintet by Florent Schmitt. When we played through the entire work, immediately I recognized Schmitt as a true master. The music had an individual style; you could hear some influences but the personal stamp was there. The command of the idiom and the technical finish all said that this was a great composer.
From there, I began to investigate everything I could find by Schmitt. At the time there wasn’t very much music available on CD, but I listened to those discs, plus I purchased scores to some of his violin and piano pieces, including the Sonate libre.
Matthew Bengtson: As for me, a number of years ago I was playing with Charles Abramovic, a pianist and teacher at Temple University. He had been invited to play a program at the Music at Mt. Gretna concert series in central Pennsylvania. They were hosting a concert of music related to the artistry of the Ballets-Russes. We played a two-piano transcription of The Rite of Spring, but in addition each of us played some solo piano works related to the topic.
I played pieces by Georges Auric that I managed to dig up, but Charles played a piano transcription of portions of Schmitt’s ballet La Tragédie de Salomé that had been mounted by the Ballets Russes, which was far more impressive. That was my first exposure to Schmitt’s music, but today is the first time I’ve actually played him in recital.
PLN: How did your collaboration on the Sonate libre come about?
John McLaughlin Williams: Actually, you had a role in that, Phillip.
Matthew Bengtson: Yes, I think a lot of it is you, because you put us in touch once you discovered that we both live in Ann Arbor. But I had also heard about John from Daniel Glover, a fellow pianist in the San Francisco Bay area who shares our repertoire loves, and who knew John as well.
PLN: Thinking about the score to Sonate libre, what makes it special — or possibly even unique — in the repertoire?
John McLaughlin Williams: Schmitt has a very unique approach to piano writing. You can certainly notice some similarities with other composers, but he has a very individual palette in his harmonic language. For a French composer, his linear style of writing is quite different. The modal work is more German in nature, and the grandeur that we hear is something that isn’t really very French at all. All of those attributes set him apart.
As for his writing for the violin, I’d say that it isn’t particularly idiomatic; it seems more like it was written for the keyboard. It works, but it’s awkward, in a sense, to play.
Matthew Bengtson: The piano part is more densely and ingeniously written than even most concertos. And when you put the violin part with it, it gives the sense of an entire orchestra underneath it. There’s this whole wonderful soloistic warmth that the piano complements and responds to.
John McLaughlin Williams: I’d add that it’s very difficult to practice the violin part alone, because you don’t know what else is happening during the long sustained notes.
Matthew Bengtson: I’ve played a lot of music from this period. Thinking about that repertoire, the piano writing in the Sonate libre feels somewhat like Ravel — such as in Scarbo — but if there’s any piece to compare it to, it might be the Ravel Trio. In both cases, you’re presenting this tremendous tapestry with just one or two other instruments — and when you put it together, it opens up new dimensions. On the other hand, to attempt to compare Schmitt’s violin sonata with Ravel’s sonata, there’s really no comparison — even considering that both pieces were dedicated to the same person [Hélène Jourdan-Morhange].
Szymanowski is another composer with a similarity of complex harmonic textures, but his music is more grateful to the violin because he writes in a higher register that makes the balances easier. I’m thinking of Mythes — which is a piece I’ve recently played and so it’s fresh in my mind.
Even Bartók’s pieces from the same period come to mind for some stylistic similarities.
PLN: Are there any particular points about the violin part that would be important for players to account for when preparing it for performance?
John McLaughlin Williams: If you could find an extra-long bow, that would help! Seriously, some of the sustained notes are so long, it isn’t possible to do them justice with a single bowing. So finding the right place to change the bow is critical and there’s no consistency in where those changes should be made — it’s different every time.
There’s another technical consideration: Because the piece was written in more of a keyboard style, unusual fingerings are required. Unlike certain passages that would lie very well under piano fingering, with the violin it requires abrupt shifts or playing on more than one string. The challenge is to find a way to make it work well.
PLN: How about for the piano part?
Matthew Bengtson: In the piano score there are so many seven-note chords — there are so many tenths — and you’re also having to jump from one register to another. I’ve had to roll more chords than I want, but the smaller size of my hands makes that necessary.
More broadly, learning the first movement is no small feat, but your work is only beginning because the second movement is so much more difficult. I don’t want to imply that the piano part is like a piano reduction of an orchestral piece, but in some respects it feels that way. There are so many layers and so many things going on. I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised by this, since Schmitt was such a great orchestrator; it’s likely he always thought in orchestral terms.
There are a lot of specific hand distributions printed in the score, many of which work very well even if don’t seem logical or convenient at first. But in a number of cases I preferred to distribute things in my own way. A pianist should spend some significant time and energy on experimenting with different options.
The pedaling is very sophisticated, too. There are quite a few long pedal markings that work if you balance well. But you need a good amount of skill with the pedal to find the best way for the resonances to combine.
The more music you play from this period, the easier it will be to approach this score — Messiaen and Dutilleux from the later period as well, as both were strongly influenced by Schmitt. Knowing Scriabin, Stravinsky and other octatonic composers helps, because there’s a good deal of octatonic harmony in the Sonate libre — weird things like G-flats and B-naturals that if you’ve played octatonic music, will be very familiar to you. The harmonies will fit under your hands with little problem.
PLN: What has it been like to rehearse the Sonate libre together? What advice would you give to other musicians teaming up to play the piece, in how to approach their collaboration?
John McLaughlin Williams: Before rehearsing, I’d suggest that anyone get to know as much of Schmitt’s mature music as possible — the pieces he composed from the time of La Tragédie de Salomé onward. Look at the scores, too — all types, including orchestral and instrumental — to see how his music fits together, not just what it sounds like. Schmitt has a unique voice, and if you have that in your ear and in your mind it gets much easier. It doesn’t make the music technically less difficult, but it removes the sense of “foreignness” that the score might otherwise have.
As for Matt and me working together on this challenging piece, it’s been really great. As I often say, “If you like to climb a mountain, here it is!”
Matthew Bengtson: To me, it was really striking, when rehearsing the piece, to realize more and more just how great the music is. You see the logic in it so much more than when studying or practicing the part on your own.
John McLaughlin Williams: That’s right — our understanding of the music has evolved each time we play it. Even today, when running through the piece before our recital and then playing it in front of the audience, it evolved even more in two hours’ time.
Matthew Bengtson: Another thing I’d mention about rehearsing this music is that there are complicated tempo relationships in the score between the two parts. It’s best to figure those out in the early going, because it’s not very obvious how to interpret them.
For instance, there’s a place in the score at Rehearsal 61 where Schmitt notates that the dotted new dotted half equals two old quarter notes — but it requires some experimentation to make the transition and have the parts related in good character. How you determine the transition affects the pacing of that entire section of the piece. And there are similar pacing challenges elsewhere — after Rehearesal 77, for example.
PLN: I understand that in the course of rehearsing the piece, you discovered some differences in the Durand scores that the two of you were using. What were those differences, and how did you reconcile them?
John McLaughlin Williams: When we first ran through the piece, there was a place in the first movement where we weren’t ending up together. Looking more carefully, we discovered that there were some discrepancies in our two scores that didn’t match. My score is one that I purchased about 25 years ago, whereas Matt downloaded his from IMSLP. The strange thing is that both scores are from the same publisher, they have the same year and the same plate number, so it’s impossible to know which one came first.
Matthew Bengtson: What I suspect is that the later version of the score is the one that isn’t on IMSLP, but rather the one that John purchased. That’s the one pianists should get their hands on, because there are some simplifications in it. In every one of the discrepancies the piano writing in John’s score is easier, there are some grand pauses introduced, and so forth. Perhaps Schmitt, after some experience with the piece in performance, decided to make those changes shortly after the first printing. Where the piano part has been simplified it makes more sense to play it that way, since the rest piece is hard enough already!
I’d also mention the second movement which is basically in 3/8 meter, but there are also 5/8ths and 6/8ths. There are more irregular 5/8ths in my IMSLP version that don’t have rests. There are several places in John’s score that give the pianist a GP or an extra measure’s rest, and even a place where there’s a notation to “look at the violinist.” I had to smile at that one — it seems a little like what you might see in a Satie score.
PLN: John, this isn’t the first time you’ve played the Sonate libre in recital. What, if anything, has been different about playing the piece today, compared to when you performed it earlier?
John McLaughlin Williams: The first time was nearly 25 years ago. I was much younger then and it didn’t seem like such an impossible feat. When I looked at the score again after so many years, I was thinking to myself, “How did I do this?” Back in those days I didn’t write much in my scores — I kept it in my head — so there was very little to remind me of how I had done it earlier.
But as I played it, the fingerings and bowings I had used came back to me, although I ended up changing a few things from before. But there remains the miracle of how I tackled this monumental score in the first place!
PLN: Matt, unlike John, this is your first time performing the Sonate libre. What have been your biggest challenges — or perhaps the biggest surprises — in working with this music?
Matthew Bengtson: I have to say, the challenge is the sheer stamina that this work requires — not just in learning it but in performing it. Earlier today, I told John I didn’t want to play the full second movement of the sonata when we were warming up before the concert because I didn’t want to make myself too tired — but we ended up doing it anyway!
But a big surprise was how this piece opened up a new world for me in Florent Schmitt’s music. Even for a person like me who has played so much repertoire from the period — Debussy, Ravel, Szymanowski, Scriabin — this was a new world. Then an even bigger surprise came in rehearsing the music, which revealed just how many interactions there are between the parts — a linear contrapuntal style that you wouldn’t associate with what seem, at first, to be a wash of Impressionistic sound.
John McLaughlin Williams: It looks like impressionism on the page but it doesn’t really sound like it. Of course, Schmitt uses certain chords that one associates with impressionism — but the way he uses them is completely different.
Matthew Bengtson: He’s probably closer to Ravel in form because there are more traditional roots in the musical structure than in Debussy, whose music was so revolutionary. Schmitt’s linear writing is closer to Fauré’s — but of course the music doesn’t sound like Fauré nor does it feel like it under the fingers. It feels more like Ravel but with the structure of Fauré, who after all was Schmitt’s teacher. So perhaps the Fauréan connection isn’t so surprising.
PLN: For your recital program today, you chose interesting — and equally rare — repertoire by Joseph Marx and Cyril Scott to pair with the Schmitt. What was the strategy behind building this program?
John McLaughlin Williams: I’m not sure that there was a particular “strategy,” but we started with the Schmitt as the basis for the program. From there it was a process of exploring other pieces that would complement the Sonate libre without upstaging it. We decided not to include the “usual suspects” of the violin/piano repertoire, but instead looked for other lesser-known pieces.
One piece we considered was the Medtner Violin Sonata No. 2, but we decided that it wouldn’t be the best match for the Schmitt because both are such monumental scores. Instead, our gut instinct drove us to music that would be a counterbalance to the Schmitt — stylistically, as well as the demands on the audience’s attentions (and the demands on us as well).
Matthew Bengtson: We read through different things. We both love Cyril Scott, and so the Tallahassee Suite seemed like a natural choice. It’s a less demanding piece but very engaging.
John McLaughlin Williams: And how can anyone play — or hear — the Marx Frühlings-Sonate without it putting a big smile on your face?
PLN: Do you have plans to perform the Sonate libre in the future? How about any other Florent Schmitt compositions?
John McLaughlin Williams: We would love to perform the Sonate libre in other places.
Matthew Bengtson: We would take any opportunity to do so. You simply can’t do the work and preparation, only to play the piece just one time for one audience.
John McLaughlin Williams: Our goal is also to make a recording of the music, and to accomplish that we need to “air the thing out” as many times as possible. It isn’t a piece you can learn on the fly and then go into the recording studio; it’s a long-term commitment to prepare for making the best recording.
In my work as a conductor, I would also love to do some orchestral pieces by Schmitt, such as the Second Symphony, but you need a virtuoso orchestra for that. As a guest conductor, typically I don’t have very much control over what I can program, but I’m always on the lookout for any opportunity.
Matthew Bengtson: I am interested in performing Trois danses, a set of three pieces that hasn’t been recorded as often as other solo piano music by Schmitt like Ombres and Mirages. Perhaps that piece could go on the same recording if we do the Sonate libre. Plus, there’s the Trois rapsodies, which is a two-piano set that John and I could perform and record together, since he is also an accomplished pianist.
Related to our performing, I teach a 20th-21st century piano music lit course at Michigan which includes a unit on French composers. I brought John in for one of those classes where he and I played about ten minutes of excerpts from the Sonate libre, which I think the students found quite interesting. Of course we study the canonical pieces, but there are also other works that I want them to explore, and I’ve been adding Florent Schmitt to the mix of repertoire.
PLN: What other notable concerts or events do you have on your schedules?
Matthew Bengtson: I’m an officer of the Scriabin Society of America, and in September we held a Scriabin@150 event — an international festival organized for the composer’s 150th birthday anniversary year. The activities included concerts, master classes, and presentations by theorists and musicologists, and were also streamed for an international audience.
Also, I recently recorded a disc of piano music by Roberto Sierra, who is coming to the University of Michigan for a lecture recital in December, during which I’ll play some of those selections. Incidentally, those Sierra scores are among the few pieces that are actually more difficult to play than something like the Sonate libre!
I’m also giving a number of recitals on early pianos, such as my 1785 Walter copy by Gerard Truinman and our school’s 1866 Erard piano.
John McLaughlin Williams: Most of my activities at the moment are guest-conducting appearances. I was conducting in Dallas just this past weekend. Plus I’m filling in as a guest concertmaster for several musical groups.
Beyond those activities, Matt and I are working to turn our goal of the Florent Schmitt recording into a reality. Not only are we working up the potential program, we’re exploring places where we can record the music here in the Detroit area — either at the University of Michigan or at a recording studio, of which there are several fine ones in the area such as Brookwood Studio in Plymouth.
I might add that we’re hoping to attract some financial support from like-minded Schmittians across the world to help bring this project to fruition. So stay tuned for future information and updates!
We look forward to hearing more news about the prospective recording project. A new recording of Florent Schmitt’s über-impressive Sonate libre is always a cause for celebration. The additional items envisioned for that recording sound equally worthy — particularly when featuring the impressive musicianship of John McLaughlin Williams and Matthew Bengtson.