Cécile Louise Stéphanie Chaminade was a very fine salon music composer.
She was born into a family that ran one of Paris’s more fashionable salons,
and her mother was her first piano teacher. Her works, which are mostly
miniatures and “character pieces”, have been taken up as encores by the
likes of Leopold Godowsky and Stephen Hough. Her songs are very frequently
programed by Anne Sophie von Otter (review
) among other great names.
This release focuses on her “bigger” pieces. I put “bigger” in quotation
marks because Chaminade wrote only one large-scale piano work, the Sonata,
which is featured here. The rest of the disc comprises a series of her
etudes, some of which she wrote in her twenties, and the last of which came
in 1910, when she was over fifty.
The Sonata is a compact, attractive piece which is over in just twenty
minutes. It’s influenced by the romantic Germanic tradition, has some good
tunes, and deals in the familiar Sturm und Drang
mood. The C minor
key, Brahmsian language, and emphasis on counterpoint (fugal development
starts after just one minute) show how seriously Chaminade took the work.
This may be your kind of thing, or maybe not. I enjoy it when I listen, and
then promptly forget most of it.
The studies are, mostly, of the academic sort, or at least intent on
proving the pianist’s mettle. Johann Blanchard, the performer here,
certainly has that mettle. He makes these tough, knotty works sound almost
simple. The etudes cover a lot of ground: some are grander and showier, for
concert show-offs: Etude symphonique
hits every dynamic extreme and
ends with a dreamy virtuoso flourish. Others are noteworthy for their
pastiche of a particular style: the Chopinesque Etude romantique
or the late-Brahms-ish Etude mélodique
Despite the forbidding title, the Etude scolastique
might be my
favourite: it conjures up memories of the Brahms ballads and rhapsodies. I
must say the “humorous” study’s jokes elude me. The Etudes de
may be the most purely virtuosic here, including No. 4, which
was appropriated by Chaminade to serve as the finale for her sonata. No. 6
is one of the only major-key tarantellas I have ever heard.
Ultimately, this music is not essential, but it is interesting. I’m keener
on the Sonata than the studies. I am keener still on Chaminade’s more
sentimental, poetic salon miniatures, which you’ll find occasionally on
recitals by Stephen Hough (the French Album, review
) or Jonathan Plowright (Homage to
Paderewski, justly a Recording of the Month
For a full-disc introduction to Chaminade’s piano music, your options are
this album or a 2014 recital on the Steinway label, by Joanne Polk. Polk
covers much of the same ground, replicating the programme almost exactly,
but she subtracts a few studies and adds a few character pieces, like
and Les Sylvains
. Those works are, to me,
more enjoyable than the studies. Polk is a good pianist too; her recorded
sound is closer and boxier.
One note about Johann Blanchard on the present album: he uses a 1901
Steinway D. I don’t know if it’s the same piano, but Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
used a 1901 Steinway D on his celebrated Maurice Ravel recordings for
If you listen to these two discs and fall in love, the complete piano
music is available as a series on Hyperion Helios. Maybe Johann Blanchard
should do another solo album devoted to the salon music. Given his pianism,
his beautiful 1901 piano, and the MDG team’s superb engineering, that would
become the first choice for an Intro to Chaminade.