Generally overshadowed by Debussy and Ravel, there were nonetheless many very original French-speaking composers born in the 1860s and 70s, including Caplet, Delage, Emmanuel, Koechlin, Magnard, Ropartz, and Tournemire. One of the most outstanding of these was Florent Schmitt, whose long working life stretched from the 1890s to the 1950s, making him a close contemporary of both Schoenberg and Ives. His musical language borrows from Debussy and, to some extent, his friend Ravel, but there is also a distinctive earthiness and drama to his sound that impressed, of all people, Stravinsky when he first heard the ballet la Tragédie de Salomé. This work was originally written for small orchestra, but Schmitt later made a much-abbreviated suite for large orchestra, and it is this version that is usually performed today, although the full ballet was once available on Marco Polo. La Tragédie was completed in 1907, and occasionally sounds like Debussy’s la Mer (1905) and Holst’s Planets (1916) ; Schmitt’s use of eight textless voices to provide exoticism reminds us that the music of such Russians as Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov were still fresh in people’s ears—perhaps this was what appealed to Stravinsky? By far Schmitt’s best-known piece, la Tragédie remains a wholly successful and admirably beautiful example of an alternative French musical voice. The CD continues with another lovely but much less familiar score, the symphonic poem le Palais Hanté of 1903, which again reveals Schmitt’s distinctive compositional voice although on a more modest scale. By contrast, the huge choral-orchestral Psalm XLVII of 1904 which closes the CD is almost overwhelmingly grand; Schmitt’s memorable harmonic idiom remains but the gestural character of this music is closer to similar works by Roussel (Psalm LXXX) or Franz Schmidt (das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln) than the ‘Impressionists’, and the polyphony in particular illustrates Schmitt’s debt to Franck. Despite the organ being much in evidence, I needed to keep reminding myself that this is ostensibly religious music because it truly radiates joyous paganness—the liner-notes call it “tumultuous and triumphal”. Soprano Susan Bullock infuses the yearning central section of the piece with an almost Szymanowski-like sensuality.
When the CD first arrived I wondered if the Sào Paolo Symphony Orchestra and Choir would be able to cope with this glorious, full-octane, music. In the event, conductor Yan-Pascal Tortelier garners the most amazingly rich, detailed, and scrupulous performance from his forces. It’s a cliché, but this CD makes me happy. Try it.