On Valentine’s Day 2023, Japanese pianist Tomoki Sakata presented Florent Schmitt’s stunning Symphonie concertante, Op. 82 in concert with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Yan-Pascal Tortelier.
The Symphonie concertante was the centerpiece of an all-French program presented at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall that also included music by Gabriel Fauré (the Prélude from the opera Pénélope) plus Ernest Chausson’s Symphony in B-Flat. Regarding the Schmitt piece, this was the first concert performance in Japan of a work that was composed more than 90 years before (1932).
For Maestro Tortelier, the opportunity to lead a performance of Schmitt’s demanding Symphonie concertante was the realization of a dream. The conductor has long championed the music of this composer — going all the way back to his early years as a violinist in the orchestra of the Paris Conservatoire. Along the way he has recorded three Florent Schmitt scores for the Chandos label in 2010 (Psaume XLVII, La Tragédie de Salomé and Le Palais hanté).
As Maestro reported to me the day after the Tokyo concert:
I must say that I prepared myself as never before, considering the challenge of the phenomenal Symphonie concertante, assimilating each note of this musical flurry slowly but surely over the past 18 months.
By hearing gradually all the incredible material of the score in my head, eventually I found my way in shaping this demanding music.
I am happy to state that the Schmitt performance yesterday evening met with huge success, as well as the magnificent Chausson Symphony where I received an unexpected final call onto the stage of Suntory Hall even after the orchestra had left the room!”
As for pianist Tomoki Sakata, the opportunity to study and perform Schmitt’s Symphonie concertante was also very welcome, as he has great love and appreciation for the masterpieces of the French piano repertoire. Ample proof of his idiomatic way with French music can be found in various YouTube videos, such as this upload of him from a 2015 recital, playing the Scarbo movement from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.
… And this “love affair” goes even further — extending to piano transcriptions Sakata has prepared of French vocal music, including mélodies by Fauré and Reynaldo Hahn. Here are two examples.
As it turns out, the Tokyo concert was significant enough to attract music-lovers from afar. One such audience member traveled nearly 500 kms from Kanazawa to attend the event: Mario Ishiguro, who is a devotee of the music of France’s “Golden Age.” Thanks to him, we are fortunate to have an eyewitness report of a concert that’s proven to be one of the major highlights of the classical season in Tokyo this year. He was kind enough to share his impressions of the TMSO concert, which are presented below. (Mr. Ishiguro’s remarks are translated from Japanese into English).
I traveled all the way from Kanazawa to Tokyo to see this concert featuring Florent Schmitt’s Symphonie concertante. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my musical life – a memorable moment that truly touched my heart.
Although Durand does not have any official records about a first performance of the Symphonie concertante in Japan, we could deduce that this one was indeed its premiere. Presenting the kind of challenges for the orchestra that this music does, any such previous occurrence, had it happened, would still be talked about today!
Even considering the skills of the TMSO musicians, which are at a very high level, the music presents major difficulties for both the players and the audience. In my mind I imagined an earlier premiere – the one of The Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913 — and the reaction to it. Most likely, many in the audience that night heard that masterpiece while tilting their heads and suffering from strange heart palpitations.
Thankfully, this wasn’t the case here in Tokyo! And yet, writing about the music of the Symphonie concertante is difficult. The notes in the TMSO program booklet focus almost exclusively on a musical analysis, but also note that this was one of the works commissioned of contemporary composers by the conductor Koussevitzky to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1932).
Following the piece’s premiere, it seems the work was taken up by others for a time, but it has been neglected for decades thereafter. The first and only commercial recording of the music was made in the 1990s.
As for the reason for this neglect, it boils down to the difficulty of the music itself. The piece was composed in a time when Ravel was still alive, and it is part avant-garde but with traces of romanticism in sight. In essence, it’s music that doesn’t fit well into any category.
Moreover, a piece like The Rite of Spring becomes easy to understand if you listen to it over and over again, but my impression of the Symphonie concertante is that it’s difficult to make sense of it no matter how many times you hear it! There is so much happening. Rather than the beautiful, melodious music we hear in The Tragedy of Salome and Psalm XLVII, here we have explosive power on a whole new level. In this music, you really hear — and feel — both the sanity and the madness.
When listening to the Symphonie concertante the tension keeps rising, with the orchestra and piano combining the musical elements in complex ways. There are many sparks, too! To put it another way, each movement has its own defining characteristics, but the elements and tension that underlie the music are consistent from top to bottom, beginning to end.
As I was watching the performance, suddenly I thought of André Jolivet’s Piano Concerto , which is another work that generates heat while the piano interacts with the orchestra in an interwoven way. In both works, the piano “dwells” in the orchestra’s sound, unlike what we typically encounter in concertante music.
I vigorously applaud the pianist Tomoki Sakata who lobbied to perform this piece, as well as the adventuresome spirit of the TMSO musicians and Maestro Tortelier. It must have taken much effort and hard work to make this fine performance a reality; clearly, that rehearsing paid off in a miraculous, multidimensional performance.
Despite the work’s technical difficulties, the result was a solid monument comprised of the “trinity” of the orchestra, the pianist and the conductor. At the end of this fierce and fiery interpretation, I can say without shame that my cheeks were blushed and my chest was pounding – almost as if overwhelmed with fever.
And I was not the only one convulsed with such feelings – both in the audience and on the stage. We saw the Maestro warmly embracing Tomoki Sakata and also giving heartfelt congratulations to the orchestra players.
You can’t easily shake off such drug-like intoxications. Finding my excitement level so elevated, I ventured outside to breathe in the cold air during the interval.
I expected the Chausson Symphony to be a refreshing contrast afterwards – a palette-cleanser – but it turned out that Maestro’s performance here was likewise warmly passionate, with sonorities played to the maximum. It was only then that I realized the complete wonder of this entire program – the noteworthy musical achievement of the soloist and orchestra as well as the artistic depth of the Maestro. Through him, this concert reminded us of the power of humanity – the romance, kindness and intensity — but also the “fun” of the challenge as well.
Following the concert, I joined several like-minded friends in a gathering where we relived the unforgettable evening and discussed the performances in detail. It’s good to have such comrades in music, and I took the occasion to share a prized possession – a letter from Florent Schmitt to Maurice Ravel – that I had brought with me on my journey.
Hearing the praiseworthy words of Mario Ishiguro about the Tokyo concert makes us wish that we could have been there to see and hear the memorable performances, too. Thankfully for us, Yan-Pascal Tortelier has already made a fine recording of the Chausson Symphony which is available on the Chandos label.
Even more heartening, Maestro Tortelier is exploring the possibility of making a recording of the Symphonie concertante, which would be just the second time this piece has ever been commercially recorded. About this project he writes:
“I am determined to find the best context for a commercial recording. Following yesterday’s splendid outcome with the orchestra and soloist, I would be tempted to record it here in Tokyo … with the benefit of all the work we have already done … rather than to start from scratch [somewhere else]. But I wouldn’t want to wait too long before releasing this major piece.”
Maestro’s words give us hope that the prospects of a new recording of this important score can become a reality before long, assuming that funding resources can be found. We’ll post updates on that progress as the news develops.