The name Elfrida Andrée was one with which I was unfamiliar, before I started to read the CD booklet. According to pianist Oskar Ekberg, who also wrote the sleeve-notes, Andrée is ‘without question one of the most important figures in Swedish music during the second half of the 19th century, not only as long-time organist of Göteborg (Gothenburg) Cathedral and a composer of vocal, symphonic
, chamber and organ music
, but also as a well-known, indefatigable champion of women’s professional standing. She was a true pioneer of the still-ongoing campaign for gender equality in music’. Ekberg continues: ‘Despite a long, active life as a musician and composer, Andrée did not write very much for piano solo, which is a pity, because in the surviving pieces one glimpses an original, deft handling of the instrument, and a good feel for the musical currents of the time. This record is a much-needed, first-ever presentation of Elfrida Andrée’s piano music.’ (Her Second Symphony can be heard on Sterling CDS-1016-2. Ed.)
Ekberg and the CD company are Swedish, so understandably they may well see Andrée’s work in a slightly different light. As with any ‘lesser’, or unfamiliar composer of any nationality, the essential thing, though, is whether they really do have something genuinely original to contribute, and which then raises any CD produced, from the ranks of mere curiosity value, to one which fills a genuine gap in the repertoire, thereby making a significant statement on its own.
For the average listener, who doesn’t hail from Sweden, it could prove difficult to name even a half a dozen ‘important’ Swedish composers. Yes, Stenhammar immediately comes to mind, Berwald before him, Ludvig Norman a while later, Lars-Erik Larsson, Hugo Alfvén and Dag Wirén would no doubt be on any list. However there is no Grieg, Sibelius, Nielsen or even Gade – the ‘big guns’ from Sweden’s Nordic neighbours.
Again, size isn’t that crucial, when you consider that Sweden is some fifteen times larger than, say, Belgium, but the latter’s population is some two million more. Even with an apparent anomaly such as this, Belgium’s César Franck would still probably occur more frequently higher as an answer in any pub quiz, than Wilhelm Stenhammar.
In forming a real opinion about Andrée’s piano music, and its true stature, it’s important to realise that she was born just two years before Edvard Grieg, and outlived him by twenty-two years. On the feminists’ side, Cécile Chaminade was born sixteen years after Andrée, and Amy Beach a further ten years later.
The opening piece of the Three Tone Pictures
(titles now given in English), On The Water
, is certainly attractive – well-written, and pleasantly descriptive. The second piece, Children’s Minuet
, again shows craft, as does the closing In The Evening
. There is some varied harmonic interest, and Andrée likes to make use of melodies in the tenor part, with appropriate accompaniment above.
The ensuing Sonata Op.3
– described by Ekberg as ‘by far the longest and most ambitious thing she (Andrée) wrote for the instrument’. Frankly the three movements, while essentially conforming to the regular fast-slow-fast design, could just as easily be given titles, and presented as three more Tone Pictures. True there is a fair attempt at development in the first movement, but when this work is compared with Grieg’s equally-early ‘Sonata in E minor, Op. 7’ – written some five years earlier than Andrée’s original manuscript – the two works are not really from the same league.
Ekberg mentions some publishing difficulties which appear to have compressed Andrée’s original four-movement conception into a three-movement work. Perhaps it’s not quite fair to put the two works side by side, given that effectively Andrée’s finale is really the original third-movement Scherzo, and there is thus no true finale here. As Ekberg also points out, the central ‘Andante’ does show some of the harmonies that are common in Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. It is evident that the texture is not unlike the corresponding movement in Grieg’s own sonata. However Grieg’s finale is an impressive piece of writing which brings his four-movement work to a brilliant and wholly exciting close. If only Andrée’s original finale could be included on a revised recording, it could really make a difference, not just to the musical credibility of the sonata itself, but also to the whole content of the CD. Otherwise the music comes over, really, more as a collection of descriptive, almost easy-listening pieces — the sort that a radio station like Classic FM might latch onto and promote individually.
The Five Small Tone Pictures In Sequence
and Four Piano Pieces
(1881) which follow, are basically music that, as Ekberg says, ‘can very well bear comparison with the Schumanns or the Mendelssohns, brother and sister’. There is somewhat more pianistic interest in the Caprice
, while Yuletide Reverie
doesn’t really appear to conjure up any particularly festive scene; then again, thankfully winters are usually far milder in the UK. Children’s Music. March
, is again a Schumannesque essay, with a slightly perkier ending. Ekberg, in his sleeve-notes, goes into greater detail here.
, as Ekberg suggests, might just have been an original entry in a diary, but one that was then turned into a piece of music. One of the instructions at the bottom of the manuscript score ‘ ‘Inspiration av en plomb-erad tand’ (Inspiration from a filled tooth) looks forward, perhaps by chance, to some of Satie’s wayward instructions. That said, the piece, which perhaps was never intended for publication, might have fared better had it been ‘extracted’ , rather than ‘filled’.
Some of the final seven Childhood Pieces
are just ‘scraps’ really – the first two, for example last just twenty and nineteen seconds respectively. Christmas Polska
is a pleasant little Polonaise such as might have been written by any musically-precocious child, as is the ensuing Piece in E flat
, once more cast as a Polonaise. The Yuletide Waltz
is again an attractive piece for a prodigious twelve-year-old, but hardly something earth-shattering, when we think of what the young Felix Mendelssohn could produce at the same age. The last two pieces, Andante in A flat
, and Sonate 1°
- the longest pieces of the set, at over four minutes each – show a slightly greater sense of direction and maturity, where the piano-writing is concerned. Again, any Head of Music at a good school, wouldn’t be overly surprised, occasionally to come across work of similar quality from a top student who possibly intends to study Music at university or conservatoire, and especially given the pastiche nature of some of the writing here.
Yes, this is a generous CD, and clearly comprehensive in drawing together the composer’s entire extant piano-music output. It is impeccably presented and the Steinway Model D faithfully recorded – the performance is assured and idiomatic, and the sleeve-notes, even if couched more in terms of a testimonial to the late composer, than perhaps a more objective appraisal of the music itself, are nevertheless comprehensive and informative – enhanced by Roger Tanner’s English translation.
While I have yet to listen to any other music from Elfrida Andrée, I do feel that, while this CD of her piano music is necessarily well-intentioned, until such time as a faithful and scholarly-edited version of the Sonata, Op. 3
– in its full four-movement guise – appears, the rest of her oeuvre in this genre is quite attractive, but really adds little or nothing to her musical status, particularly outside her native Sweden.
Philip R Buttall