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Women at the Piano - Vol. 1
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Toccata d’après le 5e concerto (Etude) op.111/6 [03:06]
Monique de la Bruchollerie (piano)
rec. 22 October 1947, London
Isidor PHILIPP (1863-1958)
Feux-follets op.24/3 [01:54]
Guiomar Novaes (piano)
rec. 3 January 1947
Selim PALMGREN (1878-1951)
Aftonroster op.47/1 [02:55]
Iris Loveridge (piano)
rec. 27 November 1946, London
Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Etude de concert in F sharp op.36/13 [02:29]
Marie Novello (piano)
rec. 1 May 1927
François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
Le Carillon de Cithère , from Pièces de clavecin, 3e livre, 14e ordre (1722) [02:44]
Gaby Casadesus (piano)
rec. 1945
Riccardo PICK-MANGIAGALLI (1882-1949)
La danza de Olaf op.33/2 [03:36]
Sari Biro (piano)
rec. 20 October 1944, New York City
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Poissons d’or, from Images, 2e livre (1907/8) [03:36]
Dame Myra Hess (piano)
rec. 17 February 1928
David Wendell GUION (1892-1981)
Country Jig in D major (1936) [02:28]
Jeanne Behrend (piano)
rec. 3 July 1940
Frutuoso VIANNA (1896-1976)
Corta-Jaca (1931) [03:47]
Reah Sadowsky (piano)
rec. 1948
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Valse op.65/2 (1935) [01:17]
Ray Lev (piano)
rec. 1946
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Passacaglia in G minor, from Suite no. 7 [03:16]
Maryla Jonas (piano)
rec. 23 September 1947
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
Andaluza, no.4 from Cuatro Piezas Españolas (1906/9) [03:17]
Aline Isabelle van Barentzon (piano)
rec. 11 June 1928
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
Paean (1920) [03:40]
Harriet Cohen (piano)
rec. 7 July 1938
Bernhard STAVENHAGEN (1862-1914)
Menuetto Scherzando op.5 [03:23]
Eileen Joyce (piano)
rec. 11 January 1937
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Alfama op.115/2 (1932) [02:37]
Marguerite Long (piano)
rec. 10 May 1935, Paris
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Prelude in G minor op.23/5 (1903)
Ruth Sleczynska (piano)
rec. 1945
Alfred GRŰNFELD (1852-1924)
Soirée de Vienne (on themes by Johann Strauss II)
Hilde Somer (piano)
rec. 1952, Austria
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
Bourrée fantasque (1891)
Emma Boynet (piano)
rec. 31 March 1938
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Feux follets, no. 5 of Etudes d’exécution transcendente (1851) [03:33]
Jeanne-Marie Darré (piano)
rec. 1 May 1944, Paris
Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863-1937)
Etude de concert op.13  [04:04]
Lucette Descaves (piano)
rec. 3 October 1946, Paris
Ignacy Jan PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)
Cracovienne fantastique in B minor op.14/6 [02:37]
Una Mabel Bourne (piano)
rec. 7 October 1926
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este, from Annés de Pèlerinage, 3e Année [07:54]
Dame Moura Lympany (piano)
rec. 22 December 1947
NAXOS 8.111120 [77:28]
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Conductor Dean Dixon once described the three phases of his career. To begin with, he was always described as “the black American conductor Dean Dixon” and work was hard to come by, in his own country above all. Then, as things began to pick up, they began to call him “the American conductor Dean Dixon”. Lastly, to his pride and joy, after he had successfully held a string of appointments, mainly with European radio orchestras, he became simply “the conductor Dean Dixon”.

Where women pianists are concerned Naxos, or at any rate Marina and Victor Ledin who are preparing this series, are still at phase one. Naxos’s historical department has given us extensive and invaluable series dedicated to Horowitz, Rubinstein, Moiseiwitsch, Schnabel and many others, without feeling any apparent need to qualify them as “men pianists”. The implication, then, is that pianists are divided into “pianists” and “women pianists” and I am reminded of how a (woman) conductor once unwittingly convulsed a choir by addressing the “men and tenors.”

Positive discrimination? Well, there are some walks of life, and some societies, in which the woman’s cause is still not won. Even at a western musical level women brass players and women conductors are a fairly recent acquisition. A record company trying to assemble a survey of these from out-of-copyright material would probably be stumped to fill a single CD. Even today no woman has risen to be permanent conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic or the orchestras of Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago and so on, and there does seem to be a certain public perception that a woman conductor is unlikely to get that far. In recent times it took a quiet revolution to get a single woman player into the Vienna Philharmonic, though virtually all the other top orchestras had been taking players on their merits, regardless of sex, for years. And for as long as the general public continues to hold that “classical music” consists of about a hundred pieces written by ten or at most twenty composers, all men, the popular idea that women can’t write music looks like remaining unshaken.

But in the case of women pianists I should have thought the battle was already won by the time recorded sound arrived to document them. Maybe I’m more emancipated than I knew, but frankly, if a pianist is announced and a woman walks onto the stage I’m no more surprised than when a soprano is announced and a woman appears. But maybe the Ledins have some surprises for us. “With the advent of the compact disc”, they tell us, “… the artistry of female pianists, violinists, cellists, as well as the performances of legendary operatic voices have become available to a much larger public”.

So now it’s out! And all these years I’d been thinking that if one of our great-grandfathers with a liking for song wound up his gramophone and put a disc on it, he’d as likely listen to Patti or Melba as he would Caruso or McCormack. Instead, pictures are conjured up of misogynist opera-lovers flooding to Covent Garden, the Met or wherever to hear Traviata, Butterfly and so on sung by all-male casts, and this until the advent of the compact disc. Funny; there were no compact discs around when I started to follow music, but I don’t remember it being like that.

The trouble is that, with these premises, whereas the men pianists got whole discs all to themselves, in this series “each artist is represented by one exemplary selection”. Since, for me, these are not “women pianists” but plain “pianists”, I should really like to have enough material (where it exists) to judge them properly. More than providing the answers, this first disc asks 22 questions, or shall we say twenty since, in the case of Hess and Lympany, the answers are known or can easily be found. More specialized listeners, too, will already have their ideas about Novaes, Loveridge (at least in the UK), Gaby Casadesus, Cohen, Joyce, Marguerite Long and maybe Slenczynska (still playing, I believe) and Darré. The rest were not even names to me and I would welcome the chance to assess them properly.

Another limiting factor in the series could be the decision “to attempt not to repeat any piece of music”. Since the issue here is the pianists rather than the music – though there are a few interesting rarities along the way – I should have thought it might actually be illuminating to have five or so of them playing, for instance, the same Chopin Nocturne.

Well, I’ve had my groan and I must say that, however much I disagree with the basic premises behind the disc, it makes a mostly very enjoyable sequence. I could stop here, but since I jotted down a few remarks at the end of each piece, I’ll repeat them here. Purchasers of the disc might like to compare notes with their own impressions. A brief sketch of each artist is included in the booklet.

Monique de la Brucholerie (1915-1972): A scintillating if slightly splashy display.

Guiomar Novaes (1895-1979): A more controlled form of virtuosity, with exemplary clarity.

Iris Loveridge (1917-2000): Well-known to lovers of British music for her pioneering Bax (Lyrita), Loveridge plays the simpler charms of Palmgren with warmth and with beautifully balanced accompanying textures.

Marie Novello (1898-1928): Neat fingerwork and clear textures.

Gaby Casadesus (1901-1999): Turn the volume down if you don’t want this to sound heavy. You will then find a clarity worthy of the harpsichord itself.

Sari Biro (1910-1990): Much clarity if not much variation of timbre, but maybe the piece itself offers little scope. Were the occasional changes to the score sanctioned by the composer?

Dame Myra Hess (1890-1965): I’ve heard some bloated specimens of these goldfish recently; Hess’s cavort with effortless grace, shot with the sunlight of the pianist’s affectionate gaze.

Jeanne Behrend (1911-1988): A spirited display. The composer David Guion is best remembered, by the way, for “Home on the Range” and his proto-country pieces, often incorporating real country tunes, were taken up by Percy Grainger.

Reah Sadowsky (b.1915): Another spirited display with cunning timing of the Latin-American rhythms.

Ray Lev (1912-1968): Lacks elegance.

Maryla Jonas (1911-1959): As with the Couperin, turn the volume down a notch to appreciate what a harpsichord-like ping the pianist could get from her instrument.

Aline Isabelle van Barentzen (1897-1981): A not dissimilar touch here! This is Spanish music of guitar-like clarity, not seen through a romantic mist. Van Barentzen specialized in de Falla and originally this piece was the filler for the first-ever “Nights in the Gardens of Spain”.

Harriet Cohen (1895-1967): The pianist’s association with Bax is well-known, but this is an unobservant and unimaginative version of one of the composer’s least interesting pieces.

Eileen Joyce (1908-1991): A game attempt at a very dull piece.

Marguerite Long (1874-1966): A nimble and presumably authoritative attempt at a piece that reminds us that, for Milhaud, writing modern music often just meant writing old music with lots of wrong notes.

Ruth Sleczynska (b.1925): The outer sections lack authoritative tone and are superficially metronomic. Then suddenly the middle section is marvellous, with textures and rubato to match the composer’s own. Back to the metronome for the return of the original material, then a fine rendering of the last bars. How puzzling.

Hilde Somer (1930-1979): Maintains a noble elegance in spite of the considerable difficulties of this virtuoso mish-mash of well-known Strauss themes. The overriding impression is of dolcezza.

Emma Boynet (1891-1974): An ideal mix of verve and grace with excellently judged rubato

Jeanne-Marie Darré (1905-1999): Neatly managed but keeps its feet on the ground. Another woman pianist, the late Joyce Hatto, found much more character here.

Lucette Descaves (1906-1993): As so often, a little-known piece by Pierné proves worth hearing. Descaves is admirably fleet but with time for gentle Fauré-like lyricism and (when required) considerable power.

Una Mabel Bourne (1882-1974): Plenty of vivacity cannot hide the fact that the piece is not very interesting. Maybe Paderewski himself managed a more varied touch.

Dame Moura Lympany (1916-2005): Exemplary control of the textures and form of this glittering piece, lacking perhaps the last ounce of poetry.  

The Ledins do not address the question of whether women pianists have a different way of playing compared with men – which would really be the only justification for a women-only disc. A certain common feature here is a natural blend of sense and sensibility. The trouble is, the public tends to think that this is how women will play – as opposed to, say, the intellectual probing of an Arrau, the interior force of a Richter or the sheer devilry of a Horowitz – and recording companies tended to typecast them, giving them that sort of piece to record. Of course Iris Loveridge will sound sweetly maternal and Emma Boynet a real charmer when they heard playing, respectively, Palmgren and Chabrier. But we must not lose sight of the possibility that these are pianists of a much wider range who are very professionally bringing out the particular character of the music they have to play. That’s why I’d like some more extensive documentation of them as pianists, musicians and interpreters, regardless of their sex.

The recordings, even the oldest, fall very easily on the ear. Was female sensibility easier on the microphones than Rubinstein on full throttle? There we go again …   

Christopher Howell

see also Review by Jonathan Woolf






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