Cécile CHAMINADE (1857-1944)
Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 21 [19:47]
Etude symphonique, Op. 28 [6:04]
Etudes de concert, Op. 35 [24:33]
Etude mélodique, Op. 118 [3:43]
Etude pathétique, Op. 124 [4:20]
Etude romantique, Op. 132 [7:07]
Etude humoristique, Op. 138 [4:30]
Etude scolastique, Op. 139 [5:18]
Souvenir d’enfance [2:42]
Johann Blanchard (piano)
rec. 2014, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster, Marienmünster, Germany
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 concert 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 The Flatterer 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 MDG.

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.

Brian Reinhart

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