Schmitt - Suites from ‘Antoine et Cleopatre’, Symphony no.2
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Cat No: CHSA5200
Number of Discs: 1
Release Date: 2nd March 2018
WorksAntoine et Cleopatre: Suite no.1
Antoine et Cleopatre: Suite no.2
Symphony no.2, op.137
ArtistsBBC Symphony Orchestra
The recording follows two exceptional Barbican performances with the same forces, a ‘sensuous and exotic’ Antoine et Cléopâtre, according to the Financial Times (2016), and the first performance for nearly a dozen years of Symphony No.2 (2017).
The Second Symphony, the last major work by Schmitt, has nothing valedictory about it: as lavish and rhythmically sophisticated as his earlier music, emphatically bounding in fast passages and supple in slow, it also encompasses all the different musical expressions and styles that he had used over almost eight decades of composing. On the other hand, it is far from being an ‘old man’s piece’. ‘It is really exuberant — very, very inventive, and incredibly busy for everyone’, as Sakari Oramo explained in a BBC Radio 3 interview.
The symphony is paired with the two orchestral suites from Antoine et Cléopâtre, music written for Shakespeare’s play, premiered in 1920 at the Paris Opéra, and very rarely recorded since then.
1Orchestral Suite No.1 From 'Antomine Et Cléopâtre', Op.69: I. Antomine Et Cléopâtre
2II. Le Camp De Pompée
3III. Bataille d'Actium
4Orchestral Suite No.2 From 'Antomine Et Cléopâtre', Op.69: I. Nuit Au Palais De La Reine
5II. Orgie Et Danses
6III. Le Tombeau De Cléopâtre
7Symphony No.2, Op.137: I. Assez Animé
8II. Lent Sans Excés
Schmitt had studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Massenet and then with Fauré, in whose composition class he struck up an enduring friendship with Ravel (five years his junior). In 1900 he won the Prix de Rome with his cantata Sémiramis. One of the works he wrote as a result of his win, a setting of Psalm 157, has helped secure his posthumous reputation, together with the symphonic poem created from his 1907 ballet La tragédie de Salomé. The latter made a huge impression, not least on its dedicatee Stravinsky who, while composing the Rite of Spring, wrote ‘I confess that [Salomé] has given me greater joy than any work I have heard in a long time’.
Both Salomé and the Psalm were recorded for Chandos in 2010 by Yan Pascal Tortelier and the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra. Now the label issues an ideal follow-up disc with two ambitious later scores, the two Suites from Antoine et Cléopâtre (1920) and the Symphony no.2 (1956), this time with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under their chief conductor Sakari Oramo. And they make for fascinating further exploration of Schmitt’s sound world, which combines French clarity and sensuality with Germanic rigour.
While Tamara Karsavina had danced Schmitt’s Salomé at the Ballets Russes in the epochal year of 1913, Ida Rubinstein danced it at the Paris Opera six years later, and it was as a vehicle for Rubinstein that Schmitt composed Antoine et Cléopâtre, the incidental music to André Gide’s translation of Shakespeare’s drama. The Suites comprise a series of six tableaux from the drama: in the first, Antony and Cleopatra themselves, Pompey’s camp, and the Battle of Actium; in the second, ‘Night in the Queen’s palace’, ‘Orgy and Dances’, and Cleopatra’s death. These varied scenarios give Schmitt ample opportunity to indulge his skill as an orchestrator as well as his penchant for exotic colours, with evocative percussion including a nicely deployed celesta, and sensuous use of strings and woodwind. In movements like the portrait of the title character, Pompey’s camp and the palace at night there’s atmosphere aplenty, while the Battle of Actium is thrilling, with the rhythmic incisiveness for which Schmitt was widely praised also to the fore in the ‘Orgy and Dances’. Atmosphere and emotion return in the final haunting tableau of Cleopatra’s tomb, as she seems to recall her doomed love for Mark Antony.
Schmitt had been an early influence on Ravel, but here the influence seems to work the other way, with many passages, right down to small melodic gestures, recalling the younger composer’s Daphnis et Chloé. But to paint this music as derivative would be a mistake: it is both tremendously assured, confident in its own skin, brilliantly written and tremendously rewarding. There have been other recordings of these suites, but Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on peak form raise the level of the game entirely, in a performance that is as involving as it is stylish.
The coupling, Schmitt’s three-movement Second Symphony (although he never wrote an official ‘First’ as such) was premiered just two months before his death in 1958, with Charles Munch at the helm. Once again, it’s gloriously written, rhythmically vital, and with an atmospherically sensuous central slow movement. By this time, in addition to the various influences of Wagner, Debussy, Richard Strauss and Ravel, Schmitt seems to have acquired a post-Bergian expressivity, with sensuous post-Romantic harmonies and melodic profiles and a few modernist twists and sonorities for good measure. Once again, Oramo and his orchestra do Schmitt’s score handsome justice, and the work perfectly balances the two suites in terms of duration and scale. Sonically, this is up there with Chandos’s finest, and detailed notes from Paul Griffiths set the seal on a splendid all-round achievement. All in all, this is a Schmitt disc to treasure: snap it up without delay!
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