Yan Pascal Tortelier

The French conductor on why he's championing the music of Florent Schmitt

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Yan Pascal Tortelier first encountered Florent Schmitt’s Psalm 47 as a violinist with the Orchestra of the Opéra de Paris and he has been a champion of this little-known composer ever since. His recently released disc of Schmitt, with soprano Susan Bullock and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and Choir was BBC Music Magazine’s Choral & Song choice of the month for August.

Why have you chosen to champion Schmitt’s music?
During all the years I have been recording with Chandos I always had in the corner of my mind the idea and desire to record his Psalm 47. I discovered the work early in life when I performed it with an orchestra and I found it just totally overwhelming.

Tell us a bit about the repertoire you’ve chosen for this disc.
I was desperate to record the obvious Schmitt: La tragédie de Salomé is well-known in musical circles; there was the Psalm 47, which I knew very well but is practically unknown to the public; and then we needed a filler. So we looked for something off the beaten track and we found this totally unknown piece called Le palais hanté. This is how we put the three together, but they all have different meanings and different formats. One, the Psalm 47, is a religious piece, La tragédie de Salomé is decadent and oriental – anything to do with Salomé has to be decadent I suppose – and then Le palais hanté is inspired by a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher.

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Why do you think his music has been neglected?
This is for me a mystery. I think it is difficult to fit Schmitt into the line of development of French music because his style and language, in terms of atmosphere and expression, is the opposite of Debussy. Schmitt is all about richness and density. I am tempted to say that he is a sort of French Scriabin. He belongs to the French school of harmonies and chords and melody but at the same time he is in total contrast to the concepts of Debussy. I don’t think the Psalm 47 has been performed at the Proms and when you think about the amount of music that is covered at the Proms, I cannot see a reason why.

Your tenure as principal conductor at São Paulo comes to an end next year. Are you going to continue to work with the orchestra?
When I was asked two years ago to step in and act as the principal conductor for three years, it was totally unexpected and I had no idea whether the chemistry would really be successful. But it turned out to be a wonderful collaboration – and only a few years ago nobody expected such a good orchestra to come out of Brazil. Now they have very generously given me an honorary guest-ship with the orchestra – after only three years! This means I can carry on my relationship with them without having the burden of having to spend 15 weeks a year in Brazil. I’m getting old, you know, I need my dear old Europe.

Interview by Elizabeth Davis