A few months ago, in a London record shop, I espied a copy of the Second Symphony and other orchestral works by Louise Farrenc (also on CPO) which I lightly passed over. In the light of hearing this recording I now wish that I had not done so, as on this evidence, her music not only has charm, originality and character but demands further hearings. There are also available recordings of her Piano Quintets Opp. 30 and 31.
What is striking is that in Paris in the 1830s and 1840s writing
chamber music and symphonies was considered ‘rather German’ and
for a woman to be composing in such un-French forms was unprecedented.
How did she get away with it? Was it that her husband Aristide
was a music publisher himself? I think not, as his business floundered
and he turned to musicology in 1837. He had created a successful
market for ‘domestic’ piano miniatures in Paris and in Leipzig
to which Louise had contributed early on in their marriage. Was
it that Louise had had composition lessons with well-known figures
like Antonin Reicha as a teenager? Was it that her own pianistic
career was taking off at this time and that she was well known
as a sort of French Clara Schumann, who incidentally also wrote
a most charming Piano Trio? Was it that Farrenc was a recognized
leading piano professor at the Paris Conservatoire. For whatever
reason Farrenc’s works were often performed, the orchestral ones
by the ‘Societé des Concerts du Conservatoire’ and the chamber
ones with Farrenc herself (and other leading players) performing
her most demanding piano parts. It was Beethoven whose orchestral
and chamber works were most heard in Paris. French composers had
to move over into theatrical genres feeling, I suspect, that they
could not compete with the German masters.
The First Piano Trio, which here receives its premiere recording,
is a substantial work in four movements. The opening Allegro
is in sonata form and, I suppose not surprisingly, begins
with a strong Beethovenian gesture. It is the most classical of
the movements, especially its first subject. The ghost of Beethoven
may haunt certain other passages but I was later struck by the
Schumannesque Scherzo. Schumann had favourably reviewed
some of Farrenc’s early piano works a few years before. Finally
there’s a Mendelssohnian finale which, like the opening movement,
is full of vibrant energy and memorable ideas. The Adagio sostenuto
second movement is not quite so arresting but still delightful.
Again it is early romantic in feel and not classical. What is
important to remember is that Schumann, Mendelssohn and Schubert
were little known in Paris at that time. But, as mentioned, Farrenc
did have a strong Leipzig connection.
The Second Piano Trio, also in four movements, is in Eb, a nice key for clarinetists when transposed. Yes, clarinetists because this trio breaks with convention and substitutes the violin for the clarinet whose mellow lines seem to link to Mozart, whose spirit lurks in the undergrowth of the elegant ornamentation of the second movement. Brahms can be glimpsed in the first movement. He was in his early 20s when Farrenc penned this work. Weber is also a presence; his virtuoso writing for clarinet in the two 1811 concertos, surely known to Farrenc, is heard especially in the lively finale. To cap things off, Schubert’s sense of slow harmonic rhythm seems to linger in the atmosphere after the third movement which is marked Minuet: Allegro. When taken as a whole the piece is consistently Farrenc’s own expressed in a language that slowly develops in the listener’s ear.
Christin Heitmann writes exemplary liner-notes, excellently translated by Susan Marie Praeder. She links the biography beautifully into the music, giving some musical detail but not overburdening the non-specialist (as can often happen with CPO discs) with too much analysis. She comments that this Second Trio had good analytical reviews when first performed in 1856 such that “the compositions had purity of style, perfection of form, grace, elegance and nobility in their ideas of art”. Farrenc’s Trio and the subsequent Op. 45 which substituted flute for violin were, we are told, very often performed and in 1869 “the Académie des Beaux-Arts bestowed the Prix Chartier on Farrenc for her chamber works”.
These very laudable qualities can also be applied to the other work recorded here: the Sextet for piano, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon. It is in C minor, a very Beethovenian key. The instrumental combination may be inspired by the great man’s Op. 16 for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon and an earlier work of Mozart. Yet Farrenc turns her piece into a mini-concerto, not only because it is in three movements - typical concerto format - nor because the piano can often to be pitted against and separated from the winds which act as a little orchestra, but in the combative nature of the material. Again I was reminded, especially in the outer movements, of Weber - something about the use of chromatic turning phrases and ornamentation. To my mind this is the finest of the works on the disc.
It is difficult to fault the performances of the experienced Linos Ensemble and it would be invidious to single out any one player yet I do feel that pianist Konstanze Eickhorst needs more than a mention in dispatches. She carries the main weight of the argument and is both a very sensitive accompanist and a strong and domineering soloist when required. She has a magical tone in the more dreamy sections, beautifully captured by the CPO engineers and the whole group plays as if this is some of the greatest music ever penned.
I have been much taken by Louise Farrenc in this my first experience. It is well crafted and top-quality and certainly worth getting to know. However, to quote a terrible cliché, at the end of the day it won’t always rivet you to your armchair.