Respighi from BIS, Schmitt from Chandos

SCHMITT: SYMPHONY NO. 2, SUITES FROM ‘ANTOINE ET CLEOPATRE’, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo/Chandos SACD CHSA5200 Over many years record companies have somewhat fitfully mined the rich seam of works by the French composer Florent Schmitt (1870-1958). To many listeners, I suspect, the bulk of his prolific output remains pretty well unknown; the only possible exception being ‘La Tragédie de Salomé’ Op. 50. That “drame muet” has received a number of fine recordings including one on SACD from Chandos. Like many of his Gallic contemporaries born in the 1860s and 70s Schmitt was influenced by both the legacy of Wagner and the impressionism of Debussy, but his music does possess a distinctive character of its own as is clear from the three works making their SACD debut on this outstanding new Chandos release. In 1920, Schmitt provided the incidental music for a lavish new production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in an adaptation by André Gide that was staged at the Paris Opera by the celebrated dancer and actress Ida Rubinstein. From this incidental music Schmitt later extracted the two extended Suites heard here. Within a few bars of the languorous opening of the 1st ‘Antoine et Cléopâtre Suite’ it is clear that Schmitt’s sound world is reminiscent of that of Ravel (especially the ballet ‘Daphnis and Chloe’), whilst Richard Strauss is also clearly an important influence on this sumptuously orchestrated and atmospheric music. The titles of five of the six movements relate directly to the play, but the middle section of the 2nd Suite is a thrilling ballet marked ‘Orgie et Danses’ that illustrates the composer’s complete mastery of his large orchestral palette. Sakari Oramo and the musicians of BBC Symphony Orchestra relish the opportunities Schmitt provides in this ravishing music and respond with beautifully cultured playing full of style and panache. The recordings (made in the generous acoustic of Watford Colosseum 29-30 October 2017) are wonderfully detailed, but with a sumptuous quality typical of this label. The other work on this disc is the Symphony No. 2 Op137 – the composer’s final orchestral composition – completed in 1957 when Schmitt was 87 years old. It received its first performance in Strasbourg in June 1958 in the presence of the composer and conducted by Charles Munch. The Symphony is in three movements (fast-slow-fast) and from the start it is immediately apparent that Schmitt, even in old age, has not lost his creative powers nor his ability for brilliant orchestration, demonstrated here by his fastidious use of an extensive percussion section that includes triangle, cymbals, tam-tam, celesta, xylophone, bass drum and bells. The music of the Symphony is both tonal and melodic; the energetic and engaging outer movements characterised by rapid and quirky changes of rhythm and mood that keep the players (and listeners) on their toes. The deeply felt slow middle movement with its yearning horn solos provides a sense of repose and perhaps a hint of nostalgia for earlier times. It quickly becomes clear that Sakari Oramo has the full measure of the complexities of this work and both he and the BBC Symphony Orchestra meet its technical challenges with ease. Once again the superb Chandos recording does full justice to Oramo’s masterly and sympathetic reading of Schmitt’s rewarding composition. Thanks both to the sonic benefits of multi-channel SACD and the quality of the performances, this release is a major addition the discography of this unduly neglected composer and can be unreservedly recommended.

RESPIGHI: VETRATE DI CHIESA; IL TRAMONTO; TRITTICO BOTTICELLIANO, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, John Neschling/BIS2250 SACD  There can be little doubt that John Neschling’s comprehensive series of recordings of Respighi’s orchestral works for BIS has set a standard in both performance and sonic terms that future competitors will find hard to emulate let alone exceed. The series began some eight years ago with a spectacular release of Respighi’s Roman Trilogy that not only fully embraced the benefits of multi-channel sound but also indicated the conductor’s empathy with Respighi’s music. Neschling’s orchestra then was the São Paulo Symphony, but for the four subsequent releases, including this one, he has collaborated with the fine Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège whose eloquent playing has additionally been enhanced by the superb acoustics of the Salle Philharmonique in Liège. This disc opens with Respighi’s charming ‘Trittico Botticelliano’ inspired by three of the Renaissance painter’s most famous canvases. The composer’s orchestral mastery is evident in every bar of these miniature tone poems for small orchestra that perfectly evoke the subject and mood of each of the paintings – ‘La Primavera’ (Spring), ‘L’adorazione dei Magi’ (The Adoration of the Magi) and ‘La nascita di Venere’ (The Birth of Venus). Neschling takes a more measured view of all three movements than many of his competitors on disc, and while this allows the listener to relish the clarity and luminous quality of the superb BIS recording, a touch more forward impetus would definitely have been advantageous. This is especially true of ‘La Primavera’ which lacks a modicum of the lightness and sparkle appropriate to its subject. Incidentally the liner notes lists this movement’s duration incorrectly as 4.54 when it is in fact 6.06. Respighi composed his exquisite setting of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘Il Tramonto’ (The Sunset) in 1914. Though originally written for mezzo soprano and string quartet it is the version with string orchestra that is performed here. The choice of Anna Caterina Antonacci as the soloist is most welcome. The sensitivity of her ravishing singing and ability to communicate every nuance of the text to the listener is clearly a product of her wide experience on the opera stage, while Neschling’s flowing accompaniment is always attentive to the needs of his soloist. The BIS liner notes helpfully reproduce both the Italian and English text of Shelley’s poem. Finally we enter blockbuster territory with Neschling’s imposing account of the four-movement ‘Vetrate di Chiesa’. This work started life as ‘Three Piano Preludes on Gregorian Melodies’ and after the addition of a fourth piece, the composer orchestrated them and added evocative titles to each of the movements that suggest scenes that might appear on the stained-glass windows of a church.Here Neschling’s measured approach pays dividends giving Respighi’s Gregorian melodies a majesty and grandeur captured in a recording of unsurpassed splendour. The calm and poetic music of ‘La fuga in Egitto’ ( The Flight into Egypt) allows for some beautifully turned wind solos from the Liège players while the devotional ‘Il mattutino di Santa Chiara’ (The Matins of St. Clare) also features subtly nuanced string playing towards its close. Neschling is particularly successful in the pacing and dramatic thrust of the exciting ‘San Michele Arcangelo’ (St. Michael Archangel). The atmospheric off-stage trumpet solo in the middle of this piece is perfectly distanced on this recording and provides a moment of repose before the build up to the spectacular triple forte tam-tam crash that ends this section. The final and longest movement of the work is ‘San Gregorio Magno’ (St. Gregory the Great) and here the conductor’s clear sense of purpose and masterly control of his gargantuan orchestral forces, that include an organ and large percussion section, is never in doubt. He unfolds this imposing Gregorian fantasia with impressive solemnity before bringing it to a blazing peroration that will lift you from your seat. As I have already indicated the recording team of producer Ingo Petry (Take5 Music Production) and sound engineer Martin Nagorni (Acantus Musikproduktion) have captured Neschling’s eloquent performances in state-of-the-art sound that could not conceivably do more justice to Respighi’s sumptuous scores. In every way this is a worthy addition to the finest Respighi survey on disc for many years.