Romantic Piano Works by Danish Women Composers
Nanna LIEBMANN (1849-1935) Théme passionné et Variations (1911) [11.26]
Benna MOE (1897-1983) Six Instructive Studies (c.1920) Op. 3: no.1 Presto e leggiero [3.14]; No.2 The Brook [2.03]; No. 3 Allegro moderato [2.43]; Op. 9 no. 1 Venezia [2.50]; Tarantelle [1.46]; Ballabile [2.16]
Hilda SEHESTED (1858-1936) Sonata in A flat major [30.29]
Cathrine Penderup (piano)
rec. 24-25 January 2009, Kalvehallen, Copenhagen, Denmark. DDD
For those of you with a penchant for obscure corners of the repertoire here’s one for for your wish-list. The disc features three names which are probably as unknown to you as to me. These are fine performances which do all they can to give these composers a real chance of some kind of appreciation.
The first work is the Théme passionné et Variations by Nanna (née) Lehmann who by marrying her almost equally obscure composer-husband Axel Liebmann became rare in music – composer man and composer wife. You’re thinking of the Schumanns and the case here is similar in so far as Axel died suddenly and young in 1876 aged only 27. Nanna who like Clara had studied with the best musicians continued her work not only composing but also teaching. Denmark however is far too modest about its talent and the Liebmanns have never become known outside their own land.
The Théme passionné et Variations show us that Nanna’s musical language was clearly a passionate and Romantic one. This is music that Clara Schumann would have been proud of. It was also based on classical ideals hence this almost demonstration perfect, didactic form: melancholic theme followed by ten contrasting variations and a coda. Each represents, albeit briefly, a contrasting mood and pianistic discipline. The work shows a strong imagination with the variations straying not too far from the theme. Throughout Liebmann maintains the wistful mood. I’m only sorry that the variations were not separately indexed. If you lose your way then it is hard to regain your bearings.
The CD booklet has pictures of all three women. There’s a sort of aerial shot of Benna Moe looking rather like a female Reginald Dixon or a Liberace special from Brighton Pavilion. Benna was, amongst other things, a cinema organist but, as the extensive biography relates, she did not always have a smooth passage in that profession. These Studies bear no relationship I feel with the sort of organ improvisations for which she was so famous; indeed their Romantic character might well place them in the mid-19th century. They are not especially formidable although their style, which is often Chopinesque or Schumannesque veering towards the salon might suggest it. A good quality student could take them on, and indeed that is who they were meant for and very effective they are too. I wonder how easily, if at all, one can obtain printed copies of them. The first of Op. 6 is probably the hardest and the most gripping. The last of Op. 9 is a ‘Ballabile’ - a fast, whirling dance. It is the most memorable.
Hilda Sehested came from a large family and a privileged background. She even had her own island on which to compose! She chose as a composition teacher a very influential figure in Danish music at the time. This was Orla Rosenhoff (d.1905), who also taught Carl Nielsen. Throughout her life Sehested was respected, published and well known. Her Sonata is in four movements. The first has moments of great passion with Schumann high on the list of influences. Sometimes the emotion gets a little wild and she seems to check herself with a touch of Bachian counterpoint, but not for long. Cathrine Penderup’s exemplary notes comment that Sehested was “technically brilliant and in possession of a distinctive talent ... but at times the melodic lines and thematic structure become somewhat submerged in the dense texture.” Well, perhaps it’s Penderup’s marvellous performance or the fine, realistic and clear recording but I certainly never felt that, because while listening everything, including the inner lines, so clearly brought out, to me seemed to be well articulated and rich. The second movement is a brief and melancholic Allegretto which is followed by a moving ‘Largo Funebre’. The finale is the longest movement which is a pity as it does ramble a little. Obviously Sehested had a ‘finale problem’ at least in this work. Apparently she composed an opera and much chamber music. Later in life Debussy became quite an influence - now that would be interesting.
Cathrine Penderup, quite rightly, believes in this music. There is no doubt that it all deserves more than just this single hearing. There is much more to come if it can be recorded. She has recorded with Iben Vestergärd the complete works of Danish composer Emma Hartmann (d.1851) for voice and piano; so promoting music by women is a priority for her. When it is of such good quality - as are most of these piano pieces - she deserves much success.

Gary Higginson
Fine performances which do all they can to give these composers a real chance of some kind of appreciation. ... see Full Review