REVIEW

The Saxophone Music of Florent Schmitt

Review by Christopher Barrick

Dr. Stephen C. Page, assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Butler School of Music, is certainly no stranger to the saxophone world.  Page has won prizes in no fewer than ten international and national competitions, and has commissioned new saxophone works from composers such as David Maslanka, David Rakowski, Ida Gotkovsky, David Canfield, Mark Lewis, Gregory Wanamaker, and Mark Mellits, among many others.  One of his latest projects is The Saxophone Music of Florent Schmitt, a recording of solo and quartet works by the French composer.  Pianist Alexandre Maynegre-Torra assists him along with the Zzyzx Quartet, which includes saxophonists Stacy Wilson, Matthew Evans, and Dana Booher. 

As conductor JoAnn Falletta said, “Florent Schmitt is the most important French composer you’ve never heard of.” Schmitt (1870-1958) studied at the Paris Conservatoire where he learned under the tutelage of composers such as Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré. A winner of the famed Prix de Rome, Schmitt is largely known for his orchestral works and was a founding member of Les Apaches.  Distinctively French, his unique post-Impressionist compositional style — including a flair for both the epic and the exotic — can undoubtedly be heard in his music for saxophone. 

Page’s album begins with Schmitt’s two works for saxophone and piano.  Songe De Coppélius, Op. 30 No. 11is a hauntingly lyrical work performed here on the tenor saxophone, although it is also catalogued for soprano.  Page interprets this selection beautifully, with a smooth sound and subtle vibrato. The saxophone and piano exchange the lines — pentatonic, whole tone, and other — easily and the balance is always appropriate.  Page did the saxophone world a favor by recording the Songe De Coppélius, one of our lesser-known works that deserves more attention.  

The album continues with Légende, Op. 66, a piece with which many saxophonists are already familiar.  Now a staple of the repertoire, Schmitt wrote this work at the behest of Madame Élise Hall, an important patron of the saxophone.  The composer challenges the pianist as much as the saxophonist in this work, and Maynegre-Torra’s effortless techniqueis unquestionably up to the task.  Despite the relaxed tempo, Schmitt demands great facility from the saxophonist in executing rapid scale- and arpeggio-like figures.  Page handles its demands with ease and also showcases superb control down to even the softest dynamics.  Students of the saxophone should consider this recording of Légende, Op. 66in their study of this work. 

The Zzyzx Quartet’s live recording ofSchmitt’s Quatuor, Op. 102comprises more than half of this album.  After more than a decade of performing together the Zzyzx Quartetnow stands amongst the elite groups in the saxophone quartet idiom.  They have contributed numerous recordings and premiere performances, including commissioning a new quartet by American composer John Mackey. 

Recorded during a performance in Osaka, Japan, the ensemble’s performance of Quatuor, Op. 102 is impeccable.  The balance and ensemble is especially clear for a live recording, although the reverb decay is a bit long. A challenging work for student and professional quartets alike, the Quatuor begins with dark and march-like fugue in the first movement, Avec Une Sage Decision.  Matthew Evans’ tenor begins the work’s fugue in declarative fashion, soon followed by Page on alto, Dana Booher on baritone and Stacy Wilson on soprano.  Though the counterpoint is equally as busy, the second movement, Vif provides ample contrast in its light, dance-like rhythms. The third movement, Assez Lent, showcases Zzyzx’s lyrical side.  It opens with planed chords above a baritone ostinato that returns throughout the movement.  The lush duet between Evans on tenor and Booher on baritone in the middle of this movement is one of the highlights of the album. Exciting and energetic, the work ends with a genuine tour de forcein its fourth movement, Animé Sans Excès.  The quartet’s facile technique is truly on display as even the piece’s most difficult sections are clearly and agilely performed on this live recording.  Throughout Schmitt’s Quatuor, Op. 102, the Zzyzx Quartet exhibits expressive artistry and impressive precision.  

Overall, Stephan Page presents recordings that are both technically impressive and musically expressive in The Saxophone Music of Florent Schmitt.  Schmitt’s works are all high quality and deserve to be recorded in one place such as this. If one were to criticize this album, it could only be for its brevity — under 28 minutes in total length — or perhaps the noticeable key clicks in the mix of Page’s solo works.  However, the balance and clarity of the recording are both excellent throughout, equaling the strong performances.  Page’s choice to combine solo pieces with a major quartet work on the same album is an interesting one. While on one hand this is an unconventional arrangement, it is conceivably a noble way for Page to humbly focus on Schmitt’s contributions to the saxophone.  Bravo to Page, Maynegre-Torra, and the Zzyzx Quartet, who are are all in top form on The Saxophone Music of Florent Schmitt.