“At the crossroads of dance, poetry and music”: Les Apaches’ December 2021 live presentation at the Théâtre de l’Athénée in Paris was commercially recorded and has now been released on the b●records label.
La Tragédie de Salomé is French composer Florent Schmitt’s most famous work – and it has been so ever since it first appeared. And yet, the “big orchestra” version of the score that the world knows best is not the way the ballet was first presented.
Instead, the original version was scored for a small ensemble of only about twenty players – a concession to the severely limited space that was available in the orchestra pit of the Théâtre des Arts in Paris where the ballet was premiered in 1907 and enjoyed a run of more than 40 performances.
Another intriguing aspect of the original 1907 version of Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé is that it contained twice the amount of music that made it into the composer’s 1910 version, which that was first performed as a symphonic suite in 1911 and subsequently staged as a ballet in 1913, 1919 and beyond.
The 1910 version of the score, published by Durand as Schmitt’s Opus 50, carries a dedication to Igor Stravinsky, the Russian composer then living in Paris who was Schmitt’s close friend and a fellow-member of the Les Apaches.
Meanwhile, the nearly hour-long 1907 score remained in manuscript form for decades, coming to light only in the early 1990s when it was recorded by the Belgian conductor Patrick Davin leading the Rhineland-Pfalz Philharmonic and released on NAXOS’ Marco Polo label.
The Davin recording served to fill a gap in the Florent Schmitt discography, and in subsequent years the original version of the score has also been presented in concert a number of times – including in France (2002 and 2017), Switzerland (2008), Japan (2015 and 2021) and Germany (2021).
And now, some 30 years after the Davin recording, we have an impressive new recording of the original version that has just been released on the b●records label.
Featuring the chamber-sized ensemble Les Apaches led by its director, Julien Masmondet, it is a beautifully realized recording taken from two live performances that were given at the Théâtre de l’Athénée-Louis Jouvet in Paris on December 10 and 11, 2021.
Arts critic Frédéric Norac was present at one of the live performances and filed a review with the online publication Musicologie in which he reported, in part:
“Throughout the prelude … the dancer listens, thinks, changes clothes, warms up … Extraordinarily sensual, crossed by multiple affects, this long sequence of almost half an hour makes us live in the psyche of a Salomé that is, in turn, ‘carefree, haughty, sensual, cruel, lascivious and finally terrified’ (to use the words of the dancer) when presented with the head of [John] the Baptist.
Florent Schmitt’s music, midway between Debussyian influence and Wagnerian reminiscences, is captivating and performed to perfection by the ensemble Les Apaches — 21 musicians — led with elegance and conviction by Julien Masmondet, managing to go beyond the triviality of the first part by the grace of an undeniable inventiveness. Sandrine Buendia’s brief intervention in a long vocalise brings a touch of magic to the work, which in this version exalts the symbolist dimension.”
The Athénée performances were the culmination of a series of presentations of this piece by Les Apaches held in Rungis, Rochefort and Avignon prior to the ones done in Paris.
The handsomely-packaged new recording was officially unveiled at a roundtable presentation and reception held at the Grande-Fleuret Library in Paris on February 16, 2023 – an event that included commentary from Maestro Masmondet, generous audio excerpts from the new recording along with live musical contributions from pianist Philippe Hattat (playing on a 1907 Steinway grand) and flautist Marie Laforge.
The new recording of the 1907 version of the score has been met with flattering press coverage – including receiving Diapason magazine’s prestigious Diapason d’Or award.
MusicWeb International‘s John Quinn summed up the success of the new recording as follows:
“This is an expert and fascinating exposition of the full version of Florent Schmitt’s ballet score. The performance is excellent; the playing is razor sharp, but also sensitive when the music calls for that approach. The performers have been well recorded in clear, immediate sound.”
And in a laudatory review of the new recording published by Crescendo magazine, music critic Jean Lacroix notes:
“The instrumentalists of Les Apaches and their musical director, Julien Masmondet, serve Schmitt’s score with the aim of giving each intervention the quality that suits it in terms of finesse and liveliness. They give new life to this writing which preceded the well-known  symphonic suite.”
Expanding on this same point, a review published on the Europadisc website states:
“Even more obviously than in the symphonic suite, the visionary opulence of Schmitt’s work shines through. Indeed, it’s perhaps precisely because of the smaller performing forces that the work’s expansively exotic breadths seem so remarkable. And while the string section may be small (two players per part plus a single double bass), its combination with the mainly single-wind component creates tuttis that combine power with textural transparency …
At times you have to pinch yourself to remember that this is a smaller-than-usual lineup, and the full-length ballet also sets in glorious context Schmitt’s generous nods to Debussy and Richard Strauss — as well as, in the work’s climactic dances, his anticipation of Stravinsky. Masmondet paces the extended score superbly well; you can tell that this recording took place after a series of live performances — such is the command of nuance and transitions.
Anyone who thinks they already know Schmitt’s Tragédie de Salomé – and indeed anyone with the slightest interest in French music at the turn of the last century – needs to hear this disc as a matter of urgency. It brilliantly encapsulates the composer’s unique fusion of impressionist and modernist elements with both Gallic flair and Germanic discipline and rigor — and simply gets better and better on repeated listening.”
In Fanfare magazine, music critic Steven Kruger contends that the new Masmondet recording “demonstrates … that warmth and sensual heat are qualities a talented composer can evoke with only a few instruments and a way with alchemy. Theatricality, by its very definition, trades in illusion, but it is still astonishing to see how much power Schmitt manages to convey with twenty players.”
The Masmondet recording was given Classica magazine’s CHOC citation. In his review of the recording, critic Gérard Belvire described the work as “a resurrected masterpiece,” adding that the new recording is demonstrably superior to the earlier Davin interpretation on NAXOS “in terms of expressive mobility, instrumental balances, svelte textures and committed fervor.”
Lastly, writing at the Premiere Loge website, music critic Stéphane Lelièvre notes:
“While the Paris presentation of the opera Salome by [Richard] Strauss had just taken place at the Châtelet (May 8, 1907), Schmitt offered his vision of the biblical legend a few months later, on November 9th, at the Théâtre des Arts in Paris.
Compared to the brilliance and tragedy of the Strauss operatic version, Schmitt presents his own personal language and dramatism – certainly rooted in the Debussyème movement so popular at the time but without ever giving way to sterile homage or, even worse, plagiarism. Alternatively sensual, dark, refined, luminous and dramatic, his orchestra carries the drama and ensures the narration … the soprano singing only a long and magnificent vocalise, whose melismas imbued with mystery are superbly rendered by the fresh and sensual voice of Sandrine Buendia.”
I was unable to attend the February 16th CD release roundtable and reception in Paris, but composer and arranger Francis Gorgé, a faithful reader of the Florent Schmitt Website + Blog, was present at the event and provided an eyewitness report of the proceedings along with photos. His report whetted my appetite to learn more about the artistic project and how it had all come together.
Subsequently, I was able to get in touch with Julien Masmondet who generously shared more of those details with me. Highlights of our discussion are presented below. (Note: Maestro Masmondet’s remarks have been translated from French to English.)
PLN: How did you first become acquainted with the composer Florent Schmitt, and with his ballet La Tragédie de Salomé in particular?
JUM: I have been interested in early 20th century French music for a long time, and have been fascinated by the genius of Florent Schmitt and other less-performed French composers such as Charles Koechlin, Gabriel Pierné and Albert Roussel. I have programmed their works as part of the Festival Musiques au Pays de Pierre Loti that I founded and organized for 18 years in the southwest region of France, and I continue to advocate for this sort of French repertoire with my ensemble Les Apaches, alongside presenting new creations.
PLN: What in particular drew you to Schmitt’s music?
JUM: I consider Florent Schmitt to be one of the greatest orchestrators of the 20th century. I’m very impressed by the different color palettes he uses in his works, as well as his remarkable harmonic and rhythmic audacity!
PLN: Comparing the original 1907 version of the ballet with the composer’s 1910 revision, what qualities of the original version stand out as particularly noteworthy?
JUM: In my opinion, it is in Schmitt’s original version from 1907 that it’s possible to revive the work in all its singularity and modernity. It had been created for a chamber-sized orchestra designed for the intimacy of the Théâtre des Arts, the place of its premiere, but had never been staged like that since.
I did important research work on the autograph manuscript of La Tragédie de Salomé plus other materials housed at the BNF and also at the library of the Paris Opéra Museum. Certain choreographic annotations on the manuscript, cross-checked against those of Jacques Rouché’s documents when the work was staged at the Paris Opéra, shed additional light on the creation of the work.
I also read the memoirs of Désiré-Emilie Inghelbrecht [the conductor at the 1907 premiere] and Loïe Fuller [who danced as Salomé in the prodection], which helped me confirm the number of musicians utilized as well as to understand the daring scenography and choreography created for the production. I think Florent Schmitt succeeded brilliantly in circumventing the constraints of the small pit that could accommodate few musicians, playing on the contrasts of timbres and obtaining an astonishing variety of sound effects from the reduced musical forces.
Finally, the original version makes it possible to understand the dramaturgy of the work, and to follow the evolution of the protagonists and their interrelationships through the use of leitmotifs. Various scenes that aren’t included in the later 1910 version are of great beauty in the writing, helping us to understand better the psychology of the protagonists while building the tension in the work.
PLN: Please tell us a little about the ensemble Les Apaches – how and when this musical group was founded, its mission, and so forth.
JUM: I founded the ensemble Les Apaches in 2018 to promote fusion of the arts and create new forms of concerts. Like the revolutionary artists of the early 20th century who called themselves “Les Apaches” – in a Paris bubbling with artistic interactions and creativity where composers, dancers, poets and those in the decorative arts came together to invent a new world – my goal was to recreate this same kind of dynamic in the 21st century.
Each concert of Les Apaches brings together a new creation from today coupled with a work from the repertoire of an earlier period in a multidisciplinary approach. I’m happy to undertake these projects that rediscover rarely performed works from the existing repertoire while also encouraging the writing of new works commissioned by the ensemble.
PLN: What makes the original version of La Tragédie de Salomé a good repertoire choice for Les Apaches?
JUM: This was one of the first works I wanted to program with the ensemble because it represents perfectly the “DNA” of Les Apaches. A headcount of around twenty musicians is currently the core of the group – a figure that aligns with Schmitt’s piece. The 1907 version relies on the contrasts of timbres and generates, using a minimal number of instruments, an exceptional variety of sound effects. Each of the musicians occupies a kind of “soloist” position within the course of the work, thereby increasing a feeling of responsibility on the part of each musician — a dynamic that I don’t think would be the same in performing the 1910 revised score.
But beyond that, “multi-disciplinarity” is at the heart of each of our projects, so we have also sought to rediscover the choreographic essence of the work. We have thus explored all the artistic cross-currents offered by La Tragédie de Salomé utilizing 21st century digital tools in order to best realize this intense, bewitching score, tinged as it is with sensuality and savagery. Video, dance and music form this hybrid creation, which is designed equally as a kind of symphonic poem that is danced and a symphony that can be seen.
The images illustrate the music from far or near and are a personal evocation — a visual poem — in an extension of Loïe Fuller’s revolutionary experimentation on the swirling of fabrics and the play of light.
PLN: How did the program come together, including the inclusion of the new composition by Fabien Touchard on the topic of Loïe Fuller, who had danced the title role in the 1907 ballet production?
JUM: We undertook a concert tour of France in December 2021, culminating in two performances in Paris at the Théâtre de l’Athénée that were recorded for the b●records release. A few months before this we had organized a residency at the Abbaye de Royaumont. That session made it possible to bring together the entire artistic team in order to formulate the dramaturgy of the show plus plan the video creation, the scenographic approach, the choreographic creation and the score.
Following in the footsteps of Salomé portrayals created by Strauss, Pierné, Massenet, Schmitt and Mariotte, I also wanted to challenge a young French composer, Fabien Touchard, to write in his turn his own musical version of the legend of Salome. The Touchard commission aims to cast a new representation of this female figure who has inspired and fascinated artists over so many centuries. Composed in the form of an introductory diptych to Schmitt’s drama, the Touchard work presents an innovative new take on the legend.
PLN: What has been the reaction of audiences to your program?
JUM: Through its multimedia approach and the dramaturgy of the show, this program aimed to reach a wider audience beyond merely concert hall patrons by extending it to that of dance performances and plays. It turned out to be a successful bet because the program has been well-received by both the public and the press!
PLN: How did the opportunity to record the Schmitt and Touchard scores come about with b●records?
JUM: Prior to launching the project, I had discussed recording possibilities with Rémy Gassiat, general director for the label and Baptiste Chouquet, sound engineer and director of the classical collection — both of whom quickly became convinced that a recording of La Tragédie de Salomé in its original version would be important for rediscovering this composer and his consequential artistry.
And it was only fitting to include the Touchard piece as well. So we recorded the last two concerts of our tour at the Athénée in December 2021, followed by doing a few audio patches.
PLN: What can you tell us about your own background in music, including your education and activities up to now?
JUM: I started in classical music by playing percussion and piano. Then I turned to composition, orchestration and conducting. I came to realize that it was conducting that best suited my nature — the desire to work with others and to place collaboration at the heart of my activities.
Following my studies at the École Normale de Musique in Paris, I began my career as a guest conductor and had the opportunity to conduct several prestigious ensembles in France and abroad. I was appointed to the Orchestre de Paris from 2011 to 2014 as assistant conductor to Paavo Järvi. In parallel with those activities and passionate about encounters and artistic exchanges, I founded the Festival Musiques au Pays de Pierre Loti in the southwest region of France, and later the ensemble Les Apaches in 2018.
PLN: What is coming up for you – and Les Apaches — in 2023 and beyond?
JUM: We hope that the success of the recording will enable us to undertake a new tour of La Tragédie de Salomé in France and abroad in the coming seasons.
As for our current activities, next month we are presenting our new Street Art program which combines musical creations from the 21st century with the practice of freerunning. The program encompasses the urban visions of three contemporary French composers and dialogues with the pioneer of minimalist music, Steve Reich, in combination with the participation of two famous French freerunners.
Also, we are in the midst of preparing a new virtual reality project called Ça vous dérange ? [Do you mind?]. This project spurs from a new French law for the protection of the sensory heritage of the rural areas as enacted recently by the French Parliament. The legislation was in response to complaints against things like roosters crowing, the croaking of frogs, and other sounds of nature.
In this project, we are creating an immersive device for musical creation around nature sounds that will be installed in cities and in the countryside. Our goal is to raise public awareness of musical creation by offering a journey to the heart of sound and the orchestra in an innovative manner in order to better “hear” the world around us.
PLN: As we conclude, are there any additional observations you would like to share about Florent Schmitt and his artistic legacy?
JUM: Just this: Thank you my dear Phillip for advocating for this great French composer with all the passion that you do!
Julien Masmondet’s compliments are certainly appreciated … but the real praise belongs to musicians like him who continuously strive to make Florent Schmitt’s wealth of creation available to the public – both in the concert hall and on recordings. Music-lovers across the world are more than grateful!
For those who wish to purchase the new b●records release, it is available to purchase in physical or digital download formats from various online music vendors including Presto Music, Import CDs, Amazon France and others.
“Ça vous dérange” surely illustrates a kindred spirit to Florent Schmitt, who did not mind — indeed enjoyed — bothering the complacent to the point of derangement!