'Superb' is the only word that can be applied to the
quality of the music and playing on these six excellent discs from CPO.
Each composer presented here, and virtually every work recorded, ought
to be in the standard repertoire for that particular genre. In many
ways some of these works exhibit genius; all of demonstrate immaculate
Yet I have a problem with the package. Why parcel up
six CDs and present them as a set of music by six Women Composers? There
is something wrong here. I am a great enthusiast of nineteenth and twentieth
century music. So Clara Schumann, Louise Farrenc and Dame Ethel Smyth
are all grist to my mill. I am never happier than when exploring some
byway of music in this period. However 18th century music
is not something I would choose to investigate much beyond the established
repertoire. And that is not a criticism or a confession - just a fact.
J.C. Bach does not move me like Sergei Rachmaninov does. So if I were
looking at this boxed set, I may well decide that as three of the six
CDs were not in my 'age' I would let it pass. In the same way, I prefer
romantic symphonies to cantatas and flute sonatas played on original
So why package this production in this manner? Rather
I would have had like types of music or contemporary pieces. I can understand
a box of nineteenth century symphonies or eighteenth century cantatas
or twentieth century chamber works but not an eclectic mix of music
by women or, for that matter, gay, Scottish or vegetarian composers.
That said, each of these discs is superb: they hold
their own against virtually all comers - be they male or female.
[Each disc is available separately at full price - Len M]
Anna Bon di Venezia
I had never heard of Anna Bon di Venezia until these
CDs arrived in my study. To be fair it is not perhaps the sort of musical
byway that I would normally wish to explore - a little before my preferred
musical period. However, here they were, her Opus 1 Six Flute Sonatas.
This early work, written when she was only sixteen
years old, is as good as any composer's first essay and better than
many. These sonatas were published in Nuremberg in 1756; they were dedicated
to Margrave Friedrich of Brandenburg Culmbach, who was a man of both
literary and musical culture. He also happened to be proficient on the
Little is known about Anna Bon. She was possibly born
in Russia around 1740 but her exact dates are unknown. Her instrument
was the harpsichord and this ability was reflected in her next published
work, which was a series of solo sonatas for that instrument. Anna Bon’s
parents hailed from Venice where they both earned a living working in
opera; her mother sang and her father was a stage a manager. Anna was
also an accomplished singer. It is believed that the girl was sent to
one of the four conservatories that were in Venice at that time, namely
the Ospedalle della Peita. Her musical and cultural education was important
to her parents and they gave it their full attention. There are a few
scattered references to her life and work in the history books. However
she disappears into the mists of musical history and is last heard of
in 1767 as living in Hildburghausen and married to the court singer
Mongeri. There are only three opus numbers listed in the catalogue:
this present work, the Harpsichord sonatas and Opus 3, which
are Six Divertimenti, also for the flute and piano.
The flute sonatas are fine works. They should be listened
to one at a time and listened to carefully. They will be seen to be
well thought out, full of felicitous melodies. All of them are written
in three movements, the longest lasting for 15 minutes. These attractive
and often-beautiful works ought to be in the repertoire of all flautists.
It is nice to hear them played on the contemporary transverse flute
and square piano. Sabine Dreier and Irene Hegen give convincing and
I know very little about Louise Farrenc (1804-1875)
- except to say that it is perhaps unusual to come across a woman composer
in the nineteenth century that was a symphonist as opposed to a miniaturist.
However Farrenc was quite different to Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn.
She was able to practise her art within the institutions of Paris, which
of course were very much male dominated.
Farrenc had a profound musical education and she attended
the Conservatory as a pupil of Reicha. Apparently she took advice from
such great composers as Hummel and Moscheles.
Her early works were for the piano and this love of
the instrument remained with her all her life. In fact her Thirty Etudes,
opus 36 were required study at the Paris Conservatoire piano classes.
However Louse Farrenc also thought big in her musical creation. She
wrote a large number of chamber works including two quintets, a sextet
and a nonet. There were a number of instrumental sonatas. However the
three symphonies are her crowning glory. These, along with two overtures,
were her only orchestral works except for some sketches of a piano concerto
Much of her life was spent as a composer/pianist and
she taught at the Paris Conservatory, where she eventually became Professor
in 1842. This was no mean achievement for a woman in the mid-nineteenth
She was contemporary with Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin
During her lifetime, her music was fairly widely known.
It was published and played in Germany, England and of course her native
land. However after her death virtually all the works fell into desuetude.
The two works presented here are excellent. I had never
heard them before and I am seriously impressed. Of course, they are
written in the manner of Viennese classicism, but this is not a problem.
There are extremely accomplished works. The innocent ear would probably
try to allocate these works to one of the more established composers.
There is music here that is truly unique; these works are not pastiche.
We have an original voice writing within the tradition in which she
has developed. Of course there are echoes of Beethoven, Mendelssohn
and Schubert. But there are hints also of what was to come; with Brahms
and Wagner too.
These works are full of interest; they have good tunes,
the formal construction is extremely satisfying and the orchestration
is first class. There is no doubt in my mind that these works should
be a part of the mainstream nineteenth century symphonic repertoire.
I have enjoyed them much more than many symphonies by supposedly more
The playing by the Radio-Philharmonie Hannover is totally
convincing. The programme notes are extensive: some six pages of closely
Camilla de Rossi
With the music of Camilla de Rossi I am out of my depth.
It is not that I do not appreciate it; it is just that it does not really
move me. I know that we have a fine oratorio here lasting over an hour
and a quarter. It is based on the moving story of how Abraham was prepared
to sacrifice his beloved son to prove his faith in God. It is well composed
and beautifully played and sung. It has an operatic feel to it and this
makes for some quite exciting and thoroughly enjoyable listening. There
is some great music here especially the music used to accompany Abraham's
dream. It featured an early usage of the chalumeau, which had been first
deployed in opera scores in Vienna in 1704. There is no doubt that Rossi
was skilful in all the compositional arts, especially writing for voice.
Virtually nothing is known about Rossi except that
she was composing between 1707 and 1710; she wrote and performed for
the Vienna court chapel. It has been noted than she has written ‘Romana’
on the title pages of her manuscripts and this indicates Roman origin.
Rossi's catalogue includes four oratorios including
one on the Prodigal Son and another on St Beatrice.
Once again CPO excel with their learned programme notes.
The clarity of the sound is perfect and the singing is heavenly. I just
wish that this kind of music 'switched my switches.' But for those listeners
who are at home in the early eighteenth century this is really a ‘must
I have a confession to make. I warm to Clara Schumann
music just that little bit more than to that of her better-known partner.
I am not really sure why. Perhaps it is because she has always been
in her husband's shade. Of course this is not to disparage Robert's
music - I, like many other young pianists, was brought up on the Album
for the Young and still hold dear these simple but beautiful numbers.
But there is something about Clara's music that seems
to unite the style of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann in a way
that no other composer of that generation did.
This is not the place to consider Clara's biography,
save to point out that she was a natural musician from her very early
years. She was bowled over by Schumann's arrival in Leipzig and bought
into his radical musical programme of recovering the classical past
and searching for a 'new dawn' of music. The stories of her relationship
with Schumann and later with Johannes Brahms have been well documented;
it is of considerable interest to read these biographies and explore
the many letters that have survived.
What we have in this present CD is a lovely collection
of works dating from when the composer was a girl of sixteen to the
Romance in B minor published posthumously but written in 1855.
It is a fine introduction to her piano style.
The Scherzi Opp. 10 and 14 are particularly
worthy of mention. They represent the influence of Mendelssohn and Chopin
respectively. Yet each has a charm and delight that gives enjoyment
and interest – this is Clara Schumann at her best.
It is easy to criticise these works and suggest that
they are no more than pastiche. To be honest there are definitely many
references to these three great composers. However, Clara Schumann brings
her own pianistic expertise and her personal emotions to this music.
Much of it is autobiographical, charting the course of her relationship
Konstance Eikhorst, in like manner to the composer,
began piano playing at a very early age. She has won a number of prestigious
prizes. She has worked extensively as a soloist and with chamber groups
- especially the LINOS Ensemble. She brings much experience and skill
to these fine and interesting works.
Apart from a slight hardness in the sound of some of
the pieces this is a very lovely disc - a fine introduction to Clara
Dame Ethel Smyth
The Wreckers overture is one of the very few
works by Dame Ethel Smyth that is in the standard repertoire. And even
this work is relatively seldom played. It seems that the musical establishment
condemned Ethel Smyth for her Germanic musical training and background,
her outspokenness on political matters and perhaps her lesbianism. They
closed ranks against her and ensured that little of what she wrote achieved
common currency. Yet there was another side to the coin. She was regularly
played in Germany and was well regarded by many critics and audiences
who listened to her music. She was given an honorary doctorate from
Durham University and received her Dame of the British Empire in 1922.
Yet perhaps this was for her literary and political contribution to
Edwardian society rather than her musical compositions.
It is fair to compare Smyth with Parry and Stanford.
All three composers have been vilified for following in the footsteps
of Johannes Brahms. As a result their music reached the height of unfashionability.
Yet in the last twenty years there has been a slow but important revision
of our views on these composers. It is no longer seen as being the depth
of bad taste to have emulated Brahms. We are able to look at a composer
and their works for what they are and not for who influenced them. It
does not matter whether they write in any particular style so long as
the music moves the soul.
Smyth was friendly with Grieg, Clara Schumann, Joachim
and Brahms. She was obviously influenced by them too. Her student days
in Leipzig had led her from the unsatisfactory (to her) atmosphere of
the conservatory to the teaching prowess of Heinrich von Herzogenberg.
Her early compositions were songs, piano pieces and
chamber works. One of these was the present String Quintet in E major
Op. 1. There is no doubt that Brahms is somewhere in this music
- but perhaps the greater influence appears to be Dvořák
- especially his Op. 96 quartet and the New World Symphony.
It was composed by Smyth in 1881 when she was about 23 years old. It
is a fine Opus 1. The five movements are well balanced and produce a
satisfying whole. The two outer movements, the first an involved Allegro
con brio and the last an Allegro Molto full of excitement,
frame the three inner movements. The core of the entire work is the
short but very concentrated Adagio. Here the composer exhibits
signs of genius. As a whole this piece is fresh and a great pleasure
to listen to.
When the Ethel Smyth returned to England after her
period of study in Leipzig she turned her attention to orchestral works;
for example the Serenade in D major. It was at his time she composed
her superb Mass in D.
In 1902 that she begun her massive string quartet.
However it was not completed until 1912 and was published the year the
First World War broke out. This work is really a prime example of the
English Musical Renaissance; there are hints of pastoralism and even
folksong. It is not a stressful work and certainly does not prefigure
the catastrophic events that were to unfold in Europe neither does it
imply the composer's involvement with radical feminist politics. However,
this is a major work that ought to be in the string quartet repertoire.
It is strange that it has to be a German Quartet that
introduces this music to listeners of the present generation. The Mannheimer
Quartet play these two works with conviction and understanding. Well
Pauline Viardot-Garcia came from a musical background.
Her father, Manuel Garcia was an opera singer and as such was one of
Rossini's favourite performers. Her sister, Maria was also well regarded
by that composer.
Pauline Viardot made her debut in London aged 17. She
sang the demanding role of Desdemona in Rossini's Otello. Her sensational
performances received impressive reviews commenting on her vocal range
and expression. However she was not just an opera singer. She had studied
the piano with Meysenberg and had lessons with Franz Liszt. Chopin admired
her playing and was to influence her style considerably.
Marriage to Louis Viardot, a writer, opened the musical
and literary circles of France to her. She was intimate with Saint-Saëns,
who accompanied her on the piano; she persuaded Charles Gounod to renounce
the priesthood and devote his energies to composition. Hector Berlioz
himself had a soft spot for her, and always referred to his magnum opus,
The Trojans as 'our opera.'
Pauline Viardot excelled not only as a singer and pianist
but also as a composer and a teacher. She did much arranging and editing
of music and wrote a course for students of singing.
She lived into the 20th century, dying in
Paris in 1910. Massenet, Fauré and Saint-Saëns were amongst
the mourners at her grave.
This CD offers quite an eclectic mix of material. We
have the usual French proclivity for writing better Iberian music than
the Spanish in her fine song Madrid - a setting of a poem by
Alfred de Musset. It is an atmospheric piece full of vigour and good
In this disc we find folksongs, salon pieces, arrangements
of Gluck and a vocal version of four mazurkas by Chopin with words by
Louis Pomey. We may find this tinkering with the master's music somewhat
off-putting nowadays. However at that time it was perfectly acceptable
for one composer to re-arrange another's work. In fact Chopin is reputed
to have been impressed with this work and to have deigned to accompany
Pauline Viardot in performances of them.
There are a number of operatic songs, which are really
arias. These are both original works by Viardot and arrangements of
other men's ‘flowers’. I do not think the Gluck 'L'espoir renait
dans mon âme' works here. This aria was re-presented by Berlioz
and had been inserted in a version of the opera edited by Pauline Viardot
Interestingly there is a song with words by Ivan Turgenev,
Chanson de la Pluie. Turgenev was a close friend of the composer
- just how intimate we are not altogether sure.
It is difficult to know what to make of this CD. I
must confess that I do not like the style of the singer, Karin Ott.
Her voice seems a little hard-edged in places and she seems to lack
power. The singing is fine in the salon pieces such as the Havanaise
and Madrid, yet the more operatic numbers need a more powerful
It is an interesting achievement - publishing a CD
of songs by a relatively unknown composer. This is not great music -
but it is accomplished. Technically it is well presented and the music
works soundly for voice and for accompaniment.
Perhaps a few of these numbers will find their way
into the repertoire of a few more lieder singers, however I feel that
there is not about to be a major Pauline Viardot revival. Specialist
This is an interesting collection of CDs: there is
no doubt about that. As usual with CPO productions the recording is
superb, the quality of the playing is excellent and the supporting documentation
is first class.
Only really two of these women would be regarded as
being well known to all but a tiny minority of listeners – Dame Ethel
Smyth and Clara Schumann. However, CPO once again proves that the byways
of music are just as full of treasures as the highways. It is just unfortunate
that in our three-score years and ten we do not have sufficient time
to investigate all this exciting music in anything but an often-cursory
Some of this music is truly great - Farrenc's symphonies
for example, and some of these works are frankly quite ordinary. I think
of Pauline Viardot's salon style songs. Yet a technical understanding
marks every work here and a commitment to detail that is truly impressive.
I mentioned earlier that I felt that these six fine
CDs should not have been bundled together. I hold to that view. There
are many fine women composers just as well as there are quite a few
pedestrian ones. We should not enjoy music simply because it is written
by women or by anyone else for that matter. It is the sounds that move
us, although an understanding of the ‘sizt in leben’ of the composer
often adds considerable illumination.
All these works stand up against anything written by
men. I would rather have seen Farrenc bundled together with five CDs
of rare and undervalued nineteenth century symphonies or Smyth with
some of the many fine chamber works written by a host of English composers
that we still have to reappraise.