schmitt salome apaches

Florent Schmitt (1870-1958)
La Tragédie de Salomé (1907)
Fabien Touchard (b 1985)
Loïe (2021)
Marie Laforge (flute)
Sandrine Buendia (soprano)
Les Apaches!/Julien Masmondet
rec. live, 10-11 December 2021, Théâtre de l’Athénée Louis-Jouvet, Paris
B Records LBM049 [65]

This CD features a French ensemble known as Les Apaches! (note the exclamation mark). They take their name from the artistic group which existed in Paris at the turn of the twentieth-century, which included among its informal membership Ravel, his pianist friend Ricardo Viñes and also Florent Schmitt. The twenty-first century Les Apaches! was founded by Julien Masmondet and takes a particular interest in reviving neglected works and performing them alongside contemporary scores. That desire to combine old and new explains the presence on this disc of Loïe by the French composer Fabien Touchard. It seems from the documentation accompanying this disc that Touchard, along with some other composers, is a member of Les Apaches!

I first got to know La Tragédie de Salomé many years ago, courtesy of an EMI LP on which Jean Martinon directed French forces (ASD 2892). I’m not sure if that performance was ever issued on CD by EMI but it achieved a CD release in 2010 on the HDTT label (review). In 2007, I reviewed a fine Hyperion version conducted by Thierry Fischer; I believe there have been further recordings of the work since then. However, Martinon and Fischer – and other conductors who have taken La Tragédie de Salomé into the studio – have used the sumptuously scored suite for large orchestra which Schmitt fashioned in 1909 and which takes about thirty minutes to play. Much rarer is the original 1907 version which is almost twice as long and which is much less lavishly scored. I believe that version has been recorded just once before; there’s a recording by Patrick Devin and the Rheinland-Pfalz Philharmonic (Marco Polo 8.223448) but I haven’t heard that.

This is the first B Records disc that has come my way. For all its other merits, I’m afraid I can only agree with the strictures on the quality of the documentation which my colleague Nick Barnard expressed in connection with another of their discs (review). The leaflet – I wouldn’t dignify it with the title “booklet” – folds out as a single sheet of paper. On one side is printed, in French with an English translation, an interview with Julien Masmondet and Fabien Touchard. Their comments are printed in a ludicrously small font, which I had great difficulty in deciphering. The other side is taken up entirely with a black-and-white photograph of some extremely ornate chandeliers which appear to be part of the décor of a theatre – perhaps the one in which the music on this disc was recorded: we’re not told. The picture is, quite literally, a waste of space. It would have been far better if the contents of the notes had been printed in larger font and perhaps given in French on one side of the leaflet and in English on the other. The other shortcoming of the documentation is that Masmondet and Touchard tells us quite a lot about their theatrical concept in presenting Schmitt’s ballet score but insufficient, I think, about the work itself, still less about the background to the original ballet. The score is divided into 14 sections, each one of which is separately tracked. What a pity that B Records did not include a very brief track-by-track synopsis. I think this label needs to up its game significantly in the matter of documentation and its presentation. What’s offered here is completely inadequate.   

Fortunately, help is on hand in the form of the notes which Calum MacDonald wrote for Thierry Fischer’s Hyperion disc; I draw on those for this paragraph. Schmitt wrote La Tragédie de Salomé at the behest of Robert d’Humières who had written a ballet scenario for the dancer Loie Fuller (1862-1928). This scenario considered the young princess in a manner that was rather different to the portrayal in Richard Strauss’s opera. As Calum MacDonald put it, in d’Humières’ conception “Salome is essentially innocent, obedient to her mother. She does not desire the execution of the prophet and casts away his head in horror, only to be pursued by a phantasm of it which drives her to a frenzy of guilt and fear”.

The Suite which Schmitt devised in 1909 included the Prelude (which plays for 9 or 10 minutes) and quite a lot of what followed was taken from the later stages of the ballet. I made a conscious decision not to listen to any recording of the Suite prior to evaluating this new disc because I was very wary of being seduced by the opulent scoring of the Suite, beside which there was a danger that the original orchestration might have seemed a bit thin.

Schmitt’s original scoring requires just 21 players. The orchestration is as follows: four violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, a double bass, flute, oboe/cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, 2 trombones, harp and two percussionists. In addition, a wordless soprano sings the ‘Chant d’Alea’ near the end. My memory of the Suite is that the scoring is full of richness. It is true that one loses that opulence in the original version. One thing that I noticed was that the small string section – the violins in particular – seem a bit thin when the full ensemble is playing loudly. However, it’s important to recognise that everything is in scale. More importantly, I think, the original scoring provides great clarity of texture: one can hear everything that is going on and one can appreciate the collective and individual skill of the members of Les Apaches!

I appreciated very much, for example, the agility and clarity that they bring to a section like ‘Danse des Perles’ (Tr 6), in a performance that is full of life. That. by the way, is one section which Schmitt retained in the Suite. Although the sound of the strings can seem a bit undernourished in loud episodes – despite the skills of the players – there are compensations, however, in quieter passages. A prime example of this is the intimate, diaphanous sound that the strings achieve at the start of ‘Prélude au cinquième tableau’ (tr 9). In ‘Les enchantements sur la mer’ (tr 12), Schmitt offers some magical scoring to illustrate the sea. The effect, I remember, is particularly impressive in the Suite but here the players, though far smaller in numbers, paint the seascape very successfully. Masmondet and his forces also bring off excitingly the last two very dramatic sections, ‘Danse des Éclairs’ and ‘Danse de l’Effroi’. Immediately before those two sections we hear soprano Sandrine Buendia in ‘Chant d’Alea’. She’s very convincing, especially when the music becomes increasingly impassioned.

It’s been fascinating to hear Schmitt’s score in full and in its original version. I hanker after the fullness of the Suite and I’m likely to return to that more often. But there is much to be gained by listening to the smaller-scale orchestration – and, of course, you get to hear a lot of music that’s not in the Suite. In passing, I wonder why Schmitt didn’t produce a fuller scoring of the entire ballet in 1909: the original version had been a great success and I’m sure that success would have been replicated had he rescored the complete ballet. Masmondet’s account of the ballet plays for around 54 minutes, which means that some twenty minutes of music didn’t find its way into the Suite; that’s a great pity.

The performance of La Tragédie de Salomé is preceded – as it was in the theatre – by Fabien Touchard’s Loïe. Touchard has designed his work to complement and introduce Schmitt’s ballet; indeed, it is named after Loie Fuller, who created the role of Salome. I learned from the notes that as the audience assembles for the performance, a thirty-minute long electroacoustic tape plays in the background. On this disc we hear the quiet sound of the last few seconds of the tape before the solo flute of Marie Laforge takes over; that constitutes the short Prologue. There follows a much longer section ‘Loie’ in which the full ensemble participates. I’m afraid this music, though crisply and expertly played, isn’t remotely to my taste. Had I experienced it, along with the visual conception, live in the theatre I might have made more of it. Thankfully, the Touchard piece is separately tracked, so when I return to this disc, as I’m sure I shall, I can go straight to La Tragédie de Salomé.

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.  

John Quinn

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