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the future is female FHR132
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The Future is Female: Volume 2 - The Dance
Sarah Cahill (piano)
No recording details given

As an ardent supporter of women’s rights, I applaud the noticeable increase in the number of new discs with music by female composers. I recently heard about a three-disc set by newly rediscovered French composer Charlotte Sohy; I look forward to hearing it. Many more examples are coming through. Sarah Cahill has made it her aim to record as much music by women as she gets her hands on.

This disc is the second in the series named The Future is Female; the first volume was In Nature, and a third is planned. The music here spans over three centuries (1687-2019). The programme begins with music by the eminently talented Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. She was a much-lauded musician at the court of Louis XIV, and one of the very few French composers of either gender to publish keyboard pieces in the 17th century. This music is from her first book of Pièces de clavecin, which until the 1980s was thought to have been lost. Sarah Cahill writes in her notes that playing on the modern piano what was originally written for harpsichord is still controversial. Purists can get uptight about something more widely accepted as time goes by – but the music gets a far wider audience, and surely that is what counts. The piece showcases a supreme artist at the height of her powers. She made a name for herself against fearsome odds, and wrote music that is, as Sarah Cahill puts it, “harmonically adventurous, stylised but improvisatory, and astonishingly innovative”. It also shows “boundless imagination and prodigious talents at the keyboard”.

Next up are Clara Schumann’s variations on a theme by her husband. He, it has to be said, did much to discourage her from composing and performing, but thankfully did not entirely crush her will and need to go on. This fabulous music shows how fortunate we are that he did not. It was, in fact, a present on Robert’s 43rd birthday. Clara took a theme from Bunte Blätter Op 99, and followed with seven contrasting variations which demonstrate why she was a match for him in every department.

Germaine Tailleferre faced similar opposition to her piano playing. Her father tried to forbid it, and he likened a woman playing piano to a prostitute. It beggars belief that in the early years of the 20th century anyone could still be possessed of such ossified thinking. Fortunately, Germaine’s mother, a talented amateur pianist, secretly encouraged her, and arranged an audition at the Paris Conservatoire. Tailleferre flourished, even if she had to finance herself by giving lessons (which she continued to do throughout her life), since her father refused any financial support. She was one of the founders of the famous group Les Six along with Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric and Louis Durey. Eric Satie named her his ‘musical daughter’, so impressed was he by her talents. This short three-movement partita from 1957 is astonishingly brilliant, and delights so much you are driven to want it on repeat.

If you had not heard of Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Germain Tailleferre, it is pretty certain that you will not have come across that of Zenobia Powell Perry. Her African-American and Creek Indian heritage influenced her, as did the traditional spirituals which her grandfather, a former slave, sang to her when she was a child. She was a one-time pupil of Darius Milhaud. The short Rhapsody is very different from Tailleferre’s work even though it was written only 4 years later. The sadness and fragility may reflect the composer’s strong views on civil rights, a movement in which she was active. Composer and author Jeannie Gayle Pool is a champion of Powell Perry, so it is to be hoped that we may hear more of the wide range of music she composed.

It is also unlikely that the name of Madeleine Dring will ring a bell but the two pieces from her Colour Suite will have you wanting to know more. Number four, Blue Air, is a wonderfully jazz inspired three-minute delight; number five, Brown Study, is a more restrained but also jazz-inspired little gem.

It is very much the motivating principle of the project that we get to hear the music of these, in several cases, practically unknown women. Betsy Jolas’s tiny Tango si lasts under two minutes but tantalizes with the promise of an interesting take on Latin style. Elena Kats-Chernin was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and now lives in Australia. Her piece, Peggy’s Rag, is a tribute to the Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks who had left her house for use by young composers. This is a wistful piece that someone like Scott Joplin would have gladly owned up to.

Meredith Monk is more familiar. She is known for her experimental work exploring different styles. The St. Petersburg Waltz, she explains, is more about the idea of a place rather than the place itself, and has its roots in her family’s origins in Eastern Europe. As with all of these works, it makes you want to explore more of the composer’s output. So, Sarah Cahill’s aim is fulfilled.

Gabriela Ortiz teaches composition at Mexico City’s University. Her work Preludio y estudio is one of four; the others are homages to Bartók, Ligeti and Cage. The prelude is as angular as anything those three wrote, while the study is a little more flowing but still with a very contemporary feel to it. It is fast and furious, and again has you wanting to hear more.

The final piece in this fascinating and inspirational disc is by Theresa Wong, a vocalist, cellist and experimental composer, and it is a first recording. Her complex explanation of the motivation behind She Dances Naked Under Palm Trees needs reading while listening. Suffice it to say it is a thoroughly engaging work with dance rhythms very much at its core.

As I said, the feelings I was left with after hearing these works was that I really wanted to hear more of the music by these composers. Their voices are strong, powerful and thoroughly original. I am always in awe of people like Sarah Cahill who have a burning desire to ensure such voices are not ignored. This morning on Radio 3 I heard Georgia Mann present some piano sonatas by Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836). Mann said that they could stand alongside any written by others at the time. When you think that that includes Beethoven yet realise that her name is hardly known, it only serves to emphasise how dreadfully women have been treated generally down the ages in all spheres of life, including the arts. I make no apologies for my polemical stance on such matters, and I hope you feel the same, as you should. More power to the likes of Sarah Cahill and all others who strive to free the music of women composers from the obscurity in which much of it has languished over the centuries. This disc is a revelation, and is wholeheartedly recommended.

Steve Arloff
Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729)
Les Pièces de Clavecin (1687): Suite No 1 in D minor
Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann, Op 20 (1853)
Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983)
Partita (1957)
Zenobia Powell Perry (1908-2004)
Rhapsody (1960)
Madeleine Dring (1923-1977)
Colour Suite (1963)
Betsy Jolas (b. 1926)
Tango Si (1984)
Elena Kats-Chernin (b. 1957)
Peggy’s Rag (1996)
Meredith Monk (b. 1942)
St.Petersburg Waltz (1997)
Gabriela Ortiz (b. 1964)
Preludio y Estudio No 3 (2011)
Theresa Wong (b. 1976)
She Dances Naked Under Palm Trees (2019), première recording

Published: October 24, 2022

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