Florent Schmitt’s “Mélodies”

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SCHMITT: Chansons à quatre voix.1-4,6 Quatre Lieds, Op. 45.3,5 Kérob-Shal.1,6 Trois Mélodies, Op. 4.4,6 Deux Chansons, Op. 18.2 Quatre poèmes de Ronsard.3,6 Trois Chants1,5 / 1Sybille Diethelm, sop; 2Annina Haug, mez; 3Nino Aurelio Gmünder, ten; 4René Perler, bs-bar; 5Fabienne Romer, 6Edward Rushton, pno / Resonus Classics RES10265

This is one of those CDs that I absolutely wanted to hear and possibly review, but although it was being distributed by Naxos it was not available for download on the reviewers’ website nor available for streaming on the Naxos Music Library (it still isn’t). Fortunately, I just discovered yesterday that it is available for free streaming on YouTube, and on Resonus’ website they very generously allow anyone to download the cover and booklet, so here we are.

Schmitt’s orchestral works are now fairly common on CDS, but not the songs. Except for the Trois Chants, Quatre poems de Ronsard and the second song in the group of Trois Mélodies, none of this material has even been recorded before. In making this CD, Resonus contracted the services of three very fine singers—Sybille Diethelm, Annina Haug and Nino Aurelio Gmünder—and two fine pianists, Fabienne Romer and Edward Rushton. As for “bass-baritone” René Perler, he supposedly studied voice with no less than five people as is credited as being a professional singer who has performed with Andrew Parrott, Martin Haselböck and Michel Corboz, but I don’t believe a word of it. He sounds like some guy they picked up off the street and paid $100 to learn these songs and muddle his way through them. He is, in fact, neither baritone nor bass, having a constricted high range and no low range. His voice is thin and pallid and he sings flat much of the time. Thank God he doesn’t have too much to sing on this disc, though he does muddle his way through the Trois Mélodies.

Fortunately, Resonus has included the lyrics for all the songs in the booklet in both the original French and in English. Hallelujah! We open with the exuberant, extroverted “”Vehémente” from the Chansons à quatre voix (1905), about a group of fellows who apparently want to go hunting. But all six songs are charming “waltz-vignettes,” and although Perler is involved in the proceedings, most of the time he doesn’t get too many solo lines. Pianist Edward Rushton, who also wrote the liner notes, says that this song collection is accompanied by piano four hands, yet in the album credits Fabienne Romer is not listed as a pianist on these tracks. Go figure. The music sounds like a French cousin of Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes.

Yet Schmitt’s songs of the 1910s and ‘20s are, as Rushton puts it, “suffused with darker, expressionistic sounds which underscore the cryptic and fathomless poetry” of Jean Richepin, Cautelle Blée, Maurice Maeterlinck, René Kerdyk, G. Jean Aubrey, René Chalupt, Camille Mauclair, Paul Verlaine, Maurice Ganlivet, Paul Arosa and others. This is truly extraordinary music of a sort that no one writes any more because most modern composers are into shocking their listeners with grating, bitonal or atonal sounds, trying to prove they’re more clever than the composer(s) you’ve just listened to. Although they bear some resemblance to the songs of Ravel and Debussy, they have a profile all their own. Schmitt uses much more pentatonic movement which he mixes in with chromatic movement. Like so many French composers of his time, he is also loath to resolve his chords, sometimes even at the ends of songs.

In some ways, his piano accompaniments are even sparser and lonelier-sounding than those of Debussy, and they could never have a life outside of the song itself because they merely make comment on what is being sung; they do not really interact with the top line at all. Played by themselves, no one would have a clue what was really going on; they just sound like a vague series of random odd, soft chords that never really coalesce into any form, though there are occasional four-bar patterns strewn here and there. In the song “Octroi” from Kérob-Shal, the piano part almost sounds like soft noodling at first, though there are sudden loud scale outbursts that bear little resemblance to this. Indeed, there are several moments in these piano accompaniments that sound eerily close to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Only “Fils de la vierge” from the Trois Mélodies really sounds much like Debussy, with allusions to that composer’s La cathedrale engloutie in the piano part.

Mezzo Haug, with Romer at the piano, does a superb job on the Deux Chansons. I found her to be the best singer of the four because she combined interesting interpretation of the words along with an excellent voice whereas Diethelm and Gmünder, though very fine singers, were more generic. To be honest, however, the texts of the Quatre poèmes de Ronsard are much less impressionistic than most of the preceding pieces.

With the exception of sad-sack Perler in his three solos, this is an excellent presentation of Schmitt’s songs, one that needs to be heard by anyone who admires this excellent composer.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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