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Great Women Composers

Six CD set from CPO

CPO 999 914-2 [6 CDs]:-
Anna Bon di Venezia (1740-1767?)
Flute Sonatas Op. 1
Sonata No. 1 in C major; No. 2 in F major; No. 3 in B major; No. 4 in D major; No. 5 in G minor; No. 6 in G major

Sabine Dreier, transverse flute; Irene Hegen, square piano
Recorded: St Johannis Kirche, Bayreuth, September 1992

CPO 999 181-2 [63.53]
Louise Farrenc (1804-1875)
Symphony No. 1 Op. 32 in C minor (1841)
Symphony No. 3 Op. 36 in G minor (1847)

Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR, conducted by Johannes Goritzki.
Recorded: 2nd –4th March 1998 (Symphony No 1) and 10th –12th December 1997 Location not stated

CPO 999 603-2 [66.12]
Camilla de Rossi (fl 1707)
Il Sacrifizio di Abramo - The Sacrifice of Abraham. (1708)
Weser-Renaissance, leader Manfred Cordes
Recorded 8th –10th September 1995, Uthlede

CPO 999 371-2 [74.56]
Clara Schumann-Wieck (1819-1896)
Piano Works: Soirees musicales Op. 6 (1835-6); Scherzo in D minor Op. 10 (1838); Scherzo in C minor Op. 14 (1844); Pieces fugitives Op. 15 (1845) Variations n a theme by Robert Schumann Op. 20 (1853); Romance in A minor Op. 21/1 918530; Romance in B minor op.posth. (c. 1855)
Konstanze Eickhorst, piano
Recorded: Not stated

CPO 999 132-2 [64.46]
Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944
String Quartet in E minor (1914)
String Quintet Op. 1 in E major (1884)
Mannheimer Streichquartett with Joachim Griesheimer, 2nd cello
Recorded: March 1990 (Quartet) and November 1994 (Quintet), Funkstudio, Villa Berg

CPO 999 352-2 [68.29]
Pauline Viardot-Garcia (1821-1910)
Songs: Madrid. Serenade Sérénade. Havanaise. Bonjour mon coeur. Grands oiseaux blancs. La petite chevriere chevrière. La chene chêne et le roseau. L'enfant et la mere mère. Desespoir Désespoir. Adieu les beaux jours. Scene Scène d'Hermione. Jommelli (arr. Viardot-Garcia Viardot-García): La calandrina. Gluck (arr. Viardot-Garcia Viardot-García): Orphee Et Eurydice—L'espoir renait renaît dans mon ame âme. Chopin arrangements—Seize ans; La danse; L'oiselet; Aime-moi.
Karen Ott, soprano Christoph Keller, piano
Recorded: November 1987 and June 1988. Location not stated.

CPO 999 044-2 [59.00]
Budget price

 

'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 workmanship.

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 instruments.

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 flute.

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 sensitive performances.

Louise Farrenc

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 never completed.

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 century.

She was contemporary with Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt.

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 ‘famous’ composers.

The playing by the Radio-Philharmonie Hannover is totally convincing. The programme notes are extensive: some six pages of closely written text.

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 have’ CD.

Clara Schumann-Wieck

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 with Robert.

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 Schumann-Wieck's music.

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 done!

Pauline Viardot-Garcia

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 music.

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 herself.

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 voice.

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 stuff indeed.

 

Overview

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 manner.

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.


John France


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