SCHMITT: Antoine et Cléopâtre: Orchestral Suites Nos. 1 & 2. Symphony No. 2 / BBC Symphony Orchestra; Sakari Oramo, cond / Chandos CHSA 5200
I’m almost (but not quite) embarrassed to say that I came to appreciate composer Florent Schmitt rather late in life, but better late than never. In part, Schmitt was ignored for many years because of his proclivity for shouting our invectives from his seat in the concert hall; the music publisher Heugel called him “an irresponsible lunatic.” At a 1933 concert of music by Kurt Weill, who had just been expelled from Germany for being Jewish (and who was present), Schmitt led a group in shouting “Viva Hitler!”
But talent is talent, and Schmitt had this in spades. His incidental music for Shakespeare’s play on Marc Antony and Cleopatra, written in 1920, has been very rarely recorded over the years. Oramo, a no-nonsense conductor famous for his performances of modern music, conducts it here in a no-nonsense performance, emphasizing the work’s structure even over its impressionist tendencies. This works quite well, however, as it brings out both the structure and the textural clarity of the music, which is quite interesting albeit not one of Schmitt’s finest works. Perhaps this is due to the interpretation rather than the score itself; I admit not hearing the work before, by anyone else. There are many characteristics here of Schmitt’s mature scores, yet in several places it sounds to me more functional than expressive music, splashy and flashy. According to the publicity blurb accompanying this release, I appear to be alone in my assessment, however. A Financial Times critic, reviewing Oramo’s live performances of these suites at Barbican Hall, called his performances “sensuous and exotic.” Thus your reaction to it may be quite different from mine.
This, Oramo’s debut release on Chandos (he has previously recorded mainly for the Bis label), benefits from their crisp, clear sonics, which serves his approach very well indeed. The orchestral brightness is brought out exceedingly well, and despite my reservations about the suites as a whole there are some very original and striking passages in them. The opening of the second suite is much better music, impressionistic and sensual, classic Schmitt. In the second piece, he returns to his quasi-movie-music style (yes, there weren’t sound films in 1920, but you get my point), although in the second half some of the music is indeed sensual. I’m thinking the score may be more effective when heard as incidental music to the Shakespeare play, but here, given as orchestral suites, pieces are strung together that probably have more impact in the theater when heard separately.
The Second Symphony is a far more complex and interesting work. Once again, Oramo plays it with a straightahead style and dynamic intensity. This piece I have heard before, in Leif Segerstam’s outstanding recording, which I like very much. Oramo’s take on the music is quite different from Segerstam’s, valid in its own way, but I like the latter’s performance of it rather better because for me it captures the mood with a more authentic style.
In short, an interesting disc, primarily because of the rare Antoine et Cléopâtre suites; this would be your primary reason for acquiring this disc.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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