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Female Composers
Clara SCHUMANN (1819-1896)
Three Romances [9.43]
Cécile CHAMINADE (1857-1944)
Capriccio Op.18 [4.51]
Andantino
Op.31 no.1 [4.15]
Romanza
Op.31 no.2 [4.39]
Rondeau
Op.97 [3.17]
Louise Adolpha LE BEAU (1850-1927)
Romanze Op.35 [5.55]
Maria Theresia PARADIS (1759-1824)
Sicilienne [2.57]
Emilie MAYOR (1812-1883)
Notturno Op.46 (Andante) [6.06]
Dora PEJACEVIC (1885-1923)
Romanza Op.22 [1.42]; Elegie Op.13 no.3 [3.30]
Johanna SENFTER (1879-1961)
Melodie Op.13 no.1; Elegie Op.1 no.3
Lili BOULANGER (1893-1918)
Deux Morceaux [5.20]
Setareh Najfar-Nahvi (violin)
Theresia Schumacher (piano)
rec. Tonstudio FM Vienna, November 2015
AUSTRIAN GRAMOPHONE AG0004 [58.26]

What is your first reaction on reading the title of this CD? I separately asked my wife and sister what they thought both commenting, much to my surprise, that the next CD made by the company should be entitled ‘Male Composers’. “Can we never shake off the stigma of ‘female’ music?” said my sister.

The essay’s introduction delves into this topic quoting the composer Ambroise Thomas who said, in relation to Cecile Chaminade, that she was “a composer who happens to be a woman”. It was also extremely unusual for women to have the opportunity to venture into larger forms, such as the symphony or oratorio. What we tend to find then is women who were fine performers and who often had a national following but who wrote mostly for themselves and for the musicians, often friends, they worked with; hence small-scale, so-called ‘salon’ music - a horribly pejorative term. That was all that these women knew they could get performed and recognised and which was largely uncontroversial. After all you are more likely to be paid properly as a performer than as a composer. Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) and Alice Mary Smith (1839-1884), both with symphonies behind them, were rare indeed. The latter moving in suitably influential London circles.

It so happens that whilst I was listening to the CD and writing this review I was reading ‘Sounds and Sweet Airs’ by Anna Beer (One World Publications) in which she highlights eight composers, such as Clara Schumann and their struggles and frustrations in the musical, male-orientated world. It's interesting that even in these small-scale works the musical 'voice’ of each of these women becomes apparent even if it walks well trodden ground.

Clara Schumann’s Three Romances share the lingua franca of her wonderful Piano Trio. Some of the chromaticisms remind me of her husband. After all, she was writing these pieces whilst he was still alive. The third of them demonstrates the sort of showy piano part and soaring melody which they both would have revelled in. It’s true to say however that Clara had recurrent anxiety about the value of her compositions and there was often conflict between her and Robert.

Cécile Chaminade is the archetypal ‘salon’ composer with a huge body of work - much for the piano - which was greatly enjoyed during her lifetime. We have here four pieces from differing periods of her life but the style and language is consistent. All are well crafted and quite charming. Particularly worth reviving and looking out for is the Capriccio with its wide melodic range and the lyrical Andantino and the lovely Romanza. Any composer would have been proud of these pieces.

The only other composer you have probably heard of Maria Theresia Paradis who is represented by her famous Sicilienne in an arrangement by Samuel Dushkin. Its lovely sequential writing is especially appealing. She was certainly recognised as a great virtuoso and in addition was blind. Her fame was such that she persuaded the authorities in Vienna to found a school for blind girls and women with musical talent.

Some of the women represented here may well be new names to you as they are to me. One such is the German Emilie Mayor. She clearly enjoyed the romantic and mysterious mood of the Nocturne. Her Nocturne could be described as cum-Romanza-cum-Elegia. Her style is Mendelssohnian and lyrical but one has to say lacking in strong character. She toured Europe as a performer in the 1850s and 1860s and was prolific but now utterly unknown.

Another forgotten figure is Louise Adolpha Le Beau who was also a well-known concert pianist. This was the only way that many women could get their works played. She wrote chamber music and an oratorio. I would love to hear her song-cycles. Her Romanza Op. 46 is an attractive piece but nevertheless a miniature. It leaves one wondering what her longer works might be like. She gave up playing in 1900 and wrote an autobiography published in 1910 in which she vented her anger on the musical world and its lack of opportunities for women.

The rather glamorous Croatian composer Dora Pejacevic is a new name to me. Looking at various photos and a 2014 stamp issued in Croatia she clearly decided on an image of elegant beauty and decorum. Her music however could be exploratory but the pieces recorded here, a Romanza and an Elegie - popular titles it seems - show her to be interested in a gentle romantic language tinged with impressionism. She also became the first Croatian woman to write orchestral music and you don’t do that by simply looking alluring. Three discs of her larger-scale works are available on CPO (review review review). It’s a great pity that she died at the height of her powers.

Johanna Senfter had received much encouragement in her twenties from her teacher Max Reger and from her family. She composed in the typically German Romantic manner. She became disheartened towards the end of her long life believing that if she had been born a man she would have met with more success. Her Romanze is pleasing enough but the Elegie is very sad and imbued with yearning and heartache. These pieces are, for me, quite a high-spot on this disc.

Much better represented in the CD catalogue is the ill-fated Lili Boulanger. Her works have been often recorded because there are so few of them due to her much too early death and because of the originality and the high quality of what survives. The Deux Morceaux possess that typically French sensuousness and languor tinted with melancholy. However, the second of these pieces, marked Cortège, is actually quite cheerful and lively although I have heard it played with even more vigour.

Fortunately more and more opportunities are being created for us to discover music by composers of all periods who are awaiting discovery. It's especially exciting that the women composers of the past should be given something approaching their due at last.

I hope that it's not significant that these works, so beautifully and sensitively handled are given to us by two women performers who are following in the footsteps of Le Beau and Mayor and the other female musicians they worked with. I trust that their male counterparts will also search out such music as this.

It is a pity, as the playing time is less than an hour, that a little more space could not have been found, say for Senfter’s Op.13 no.2 or another piece by Paradis. However the CD comes with a good essay by pianist Theresia Schumacher and pictures or portraits of the composers dotted around the text, which is offered in three languages. The recording is acceptable but there is some distortion in the piano at climaxes.

Gary Higginson

 

 




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