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Liberté, Égalité, Sororité: 100 Years of Chamber Music by French Women
Claude ARRIEU (1903-1990)
Trio d’anches
for oboe, clarinet and bassoon (1936) [9:36]
Lili BOULANGER (1893-1918)
(1911) [3:16]
Mel BONIS (1858-1937)
Scènes de la Forêt
, for flute, horn and piano (1907) [14:48]
Pauline VIARDOT-GARCIA (1821-1910)
for violin and piano (1874) [10:18]
Louise FARRENC (1804-1875)
Cello Sonata (1861) [22:05]
Germaine TAILLEFERRE (1892-1983)
Concertino for Flute, Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1952) [14:44]
Diana Ambache (piano); Anthony Robb (flute); Jeremy Polmear (oboe); Neyire Ashworth (clarinet); Philip Gibbon (bassoon); Richard Dilley (horn); David Juritz, Richard Milone (violins); Ilona Bondar (viola); Rebecca Knight (cello); Tim Amherst (double bass); Tristan Fry (timpani); Sue Rothstein (harp)
rec. All Saints Church, East Finchley, London, 3-5 September 2015
AMBACHE AMB2606 [74:45]

This collection of chamber works by French female composers helps to consolidate our understanding of how important these musicians were to French culture during the period 1860-1960. Some of these names will be more familiar to the public than others, Germaine Tailleferre being perhaps the best known, mostly for her membership of Les Six. Others ought to be far more renowned than they are now.

First up is the Trio d’anches for Oboe, Clarinet, and Bassoon by Claude Arrieu. A pupil of Dukas at the Paris Conservatoire, she won the Conservatoire Prize for Composition in 1932. The Trio is reminiscent of Poulenc’s wind music, for it is neo-classical and spare, but lacks Poulenc’s sensuality. Its language is thoroughly tonal, with abundant wit.

Lili Boulanger was the brilliant and talented sister of Nadia Boulanger, the twentieth century’s best known composition teacher. Discovered to have perfect pitch at the age of two, by none other than Gabriel Fauré, she studied organ as a child with Louis Vierne. While a student at the Paris Conservatoire, she was a pupil of Marcel Tournier. Boulanger was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome, at the age of 19, for her cantata, Faust et Hélène. Always of frail health, she died of Crohn’s Disease at the age of 24. The Nocturne is a perfect jewel of delicate melancholy and contemplation.

Mel Bonis is not a composer known to most listeners, but her music proves to be a revelation. At first forbidden to study music, she nevertheless entered the Paris Conservatoire where she was an organ student of Franck, who also aided and encouraged her compositions. His unique kind of chromatic harmony and deep Catholic faith undoubtedly influenced the young composer. However, her stern parents forced her to withdraw from school and then engineered an arranged marriage. Her husband forbade her to compose which she did in secret. I had already heard her wonderful Cello Sonata. The excellent and gorgeous Scènes de la Forêt, for Flute, Horn and Piano (1907) is no less impressive. To me the writing is suggestive of a blend of Franck and Saint-Säens while sharing her classmate Gabriel Pierné’s elegance and sense of proportion. This trio should become a repertoire staple.

Pauline Viardot-Garcia is far better known as the legendary mezzo Pauline Viardot. A piano pupil of Franz Liszt, the extremely gifted Pauline was steered instead by her mother to a career as a singer. Her Sonatine for Violin and Piano was published in 1874. This light and charming salon music is reminiscent of the works of Moskowski.

Louise Farrenc wrote numerous chamber works which have entered the repertoire in the last three decades, particularly the Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano. Farrenc was a first-rate composer whose works can at times rival those of Mendelssohn, with which her works are often compared. A gifted prodigy, the young Louise studied piano with Hummel and Moscheles, then, at age 15, entered the Paris Conservatoire as a composition pupil of Anton Reicha. She became such a fine and sought after pianist that she was the first woman to be appointed to the faculty of the Paris Conservatoire. One unique aspect of her music is that, contrary to almost all other French composers of the early to mid nineteenth century, she wrote instrumental and chamber music as opposed to opera. This would partially explain the eclipse her reputation suffered after her death. Other than prejudice against her sex, there is no other explanation. The Cello Sonata from 1861 was her last work of chamber music. Although redolent of Mendelssohn’s style superficially, the Sonata manifests more gravitas than his cello sonatas. There are stylistic similarities with the earlier, late Classical and early Romantic composers such as Dussek, Spohr and Schubert. It shares with the latter’s sonatas a complete mastery of large-scale form.

Germaine Tailleferre wrote her Concertino for Flute, Piano and Chamber Orchestra in 1952. Famous as the only female member of Les Six, young Germaine studied composition with Charles Koechlin at the Paris Conservatoire, later receiving lessons in orchestration from Ravel. Among her classmates at the Conservatoire were Honegger, Poulenc, Milhaud, Auric and Durey. Tailleferre’s seventy years of composition left a large body of work including ballets, film music, concertos for numerous instruments, and some first rate chamber music. In her style can be heard the influences of Koechlin and Satie, as well as the neo-classicism of Stravinsky. 1920s Paris was heavily influenced by Jazz and Tango, and there was a desire for change after the ravages of the Great War. This revolution in art most importantly tried to separate itself from the heavy influence of Wagner and Romanticism, and to embrace the new, light-hearted style of post-war Europe and America. The Concertino embodies all these changes of style. In four short movements, this perfectly constructed piece conjures up the Parisian dance hall and the Milongas of Buenos Aires but in its first movement the use of ostinatos show the influence of Stravinsky. The Intermezzo which follows reminds me of both Fauré and his pupil Koechlin. The subtleties of the Nocturne are as charming as anything written in France in the last one hundred years.

The musicians are all first rate London-based performers, many of them having either memberships or strong associations with all the major orchestras there. As a group they are referred to as "Diana Ambache and Friends", and it would appear that this disc is her brainchild. She is the pianist on all the works which require piano, and she is excellent, possessing a fluid technique and an elegant tone. I was particularly impressed with flautist Anthony Robb for his work in the Bonis and Tailleferre works, both of which I feel are the two most impressive on the album. In fact all the performers have turned out very fine work indeed.

Samuel Magill



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