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Chamber Works by Women Composers
Clara SCHUMANN (1819-1896)
Piano Trio in G minor, op. 17 (1846) [28:44]
Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
Piano Trio, op. 150 (1938) [15:04]
Germaine TAILLEFERRE (1892-1983)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in C sharp minor (1922) [20:20]
Lili BOULANGER (1893-1918)
Nocturne (1911) [3:28]
Cortège (1914) [1:53]
Fanny MENDELSSOHN-HENSEL (1805-1847)
Piano Trio in D minor, op. 11 (1846/7) [25:22]
Teresa CARREÑO (1853-1917)
String Quartet in B minor (1896) [22:42]
Cecile CHAMINADE (1857-1944)
Piano Trio in G minor, op. 11 (1881) [23:18]
Macalester Trio (Donald Betts (piano), Joseph Roche (violin), Camilla Heller (cello))
Robert Zelnick (violin: quartet), Tamas Strasser (viola: quartet), Paul Freed (piano: sonatas)
rec. 1970s, details not provided
VOX CDX5029 [69:48 + 71:26]

This is at least the third incarnation of this recording, initially released, I believe, in the late 1970s, and then on CD in 1991. In each case, the title and all the works have been retained. That being so, the ever so slightly patronising title is excused. After all, it was a different time and the number of recordings of works by female composers pre-1980 was fairly low, and the release of a triple LP set dedicated to such works would have been something to celebrate. Nowadays, I would like to think that such special pleading is unnecessary. Having said this, there was a brand new release recently reviewed here, subtitled “100 Years of Chamber Music by French Women”.

The order in which the works are presented would seem to have no underlying logic. Why not chronological, with the Mendelssohn, Schumann and Chaminade trios on one disc, and the more or less twentieth century works on the other. Alternatively, the three Germanic trios, and I’m including the Beach in this by its style, fit comfortably on one, and the French and Latin on the other. Since one can programme them in whatever order one likes, it is a minor matter, especially when there is a far bigger problem than this.

The four trios belong in everyone’s chamber music collection. The Schumann and Mendelssohn works are frequently described as their best compositions. Whether that is so, I can’t say, but they are both fine works; the Schumann is graceful and elegant, the Mendelssohn much more dramatic and forceful. The Beach is elegiac and autumnal, befitting the time of life in which it was written, if not the decade. The Chaminade isn’t as good as her second trio, but is still a melodious and charming work.

Of the other works, the Boulanger miniatures are well-crafted and the Tailleferre sonata has clear stylistic connections to her fellow Les Six members, especially Milhaud. Teresa Carreño was the only one whose name was unknown to me. Among her four husbands was Eugen d’Albert, and her teachers included Louis Gottschalk and Anton Rubinstein. The great majority of her compositions were for solo piano – her instrument as a concert artist – and this quartet is the only non-piano work of hers available. In terms of style and general feel, it has more in common with Haydn than Brahms, but is pleasant at best, and alas unmemorable.

You will note that I have rather skipped through these works, and likewise, I don’t intend to make comparisons with other recordings. This brevity is for one very good reason: each and every one of these works is compromised by the piercing nasal tone of violinist Joseph Roche. It becomes very wearying very quickly. By way of example, the Beach trio has a quite beautiful opening with an elegiac melody in the cello, supported by swirling figures in the piano. For 35 seconds, all is good, and then the violin enters, totally shattering the blissful mood. I should say that I have no such problem with the other performers, so it is clearly not a matter of an engineering problem, or a recording showing its age.

If you want these works in good recordings, unfortunately you will need to look elsewhere, and pay considerably more. There are good alternatives for all works except the Carreño, and it would have to be far better than it is to justify the purchase. If your budget won’t stretch to buying them individually – you can get the Mendelssohn and Schumann on a Hyperion Helios budget disc – then you will need to steel yourself to cope with the sound of the violin. If you do decide to purchase this, look carefully before buying: AmazonUK is listing this at £24, whereas on Presto it is £9.75.

I presume the booklet notes would have been those provided with the LP set. Therefore, they are almost forty years out of date, and will be lacking the fruits of more recent research into these composers.

David Barker



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