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
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.”
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.
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”.
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
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
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.
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.
de la Brucholerie (1915-1972): A scintillating if slightly
Novaes (1895-1979): A more controlled form of virtuosity,
with exemplary clarity.
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.
Novello (1898-1928): Neat fingerwork and clear textures.
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.
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?
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
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.
Sadowsky (b.1915): Another spirited display with cunning
timing of the Latin-American rhythms.
Lev (1912-1968): Lacks elegance.
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.
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”.
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.
Joyce (1908-1991): A game attempt at a very dull piece.
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.
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.
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
Boynet (1891-1974): An ideal mix of verve and grace with
excellently judged rubato
Darré (1905-1999): Neatly managed but keeps its feet on
the ground. Another woman pianist, the late Joyce Hatto, found
much more character here.
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)
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.
Moura Lympany (1916-2005): Exemplary control of the textures
and form of this glittering piece, lacking perhaps the last
ounce of poetry.
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.
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 …
by Jonathan Woolf