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Cécile CHAMINADE (1857-1944)
Piano Music
Mark Viner (piano)
rec. 2018, Westvest Church, Schiedam, The Netherlands.

I’ve been extremely impressed by the young British pianist Mark Viner’s previous recordings of Thalberg, Liszt, and Alkan so I was delighted when the chance to review this disc of piano music by the neglected 19th century female composer Cecile Chaminade. Once almost totally ignored as a salon composer, Chaminade has fared slightly better on disc in recent years. Her “Concertstuck”, for example, has been recorded on the Hyperion label as part of their excellent romantic piano concerto series and the pianist Johann Blanchard released a CD of her piano music. While the catalogue is not exactly bristling with recordings, most of her solo piano works are now covered. One of the advantages of this particular recording is that it offers complete sets of pieces rather than isolated ones. As an example, her most famous work, “Automne” (Op.35 no.2) is here included with the remainder of the studies from the Op.35 set.

The disc opens with the sprightly “Pierette”, which bounces along in a most joyful and unpretentious way. This is a marvellous little piece and would make an excellent encore at a recital. The following 6 pieces all make up Chaminade’s concert etudes from Op.35 and include the (in)famous “Automne”. The opening Scherzo is a real tour de force. It offers plenty of complications for the pianist to negotiate and is spectacularly well played. I’ve always liked “Automne” and find the opening theme a reccurring earworm due to its memorability. All the details are present and correct here – it is wonderfully played, with a real sense of feeling. The challenging central section, which I imagine to depict a storm, is absolutely phenomenal – here is music of real purpose and intent. Mr. Viner is more than capable of dealing with the virtuosity here and plays magnificently. When the opening music returns, the transition is marvellously well controlled. Next follows a filigree “Fileuse”, which leaps about the keyboard a lot and is utterly charming. There is a lot of complex finger work here, perfectly dispatched. Piece no.4 from the set is entitled “Appassionato” and is certainly played with plenty of passion. To my ears, this piece sounds like something that Moszkowski might have composed as an etude. The penultimate piece is a very busy “Impromptu” with lots of tremolandos and a rather wonderful main theme which will stick in your head. It proceeds rather splendidly and the jumpy middle section at about 1’34’’ with trills and runs will put a smile on your face too. Perhaps predictably, Chaminade chooses to end her Op.35 with a virtuosic final piece – in this case a very difficult sounding “Tarantella”, oddly in a major key. Again, this is another piece which could easily become an earworm. It’s fantastically well played here and the pianism is peerless. What a stunning performance of these great little pieces!

Next is a little piece called “Les Sylvains” (“The Fauns”). This is much slower and more meditative, at least to begin with. The central section has more high energy and has plenty of passagework in the right hand, which sounds testing despite an underlying sense of peace. The ending, which vanishes quietly into the ether, puts me in mind of the end of Liszt’s Valse-Impromptu (S213).

Next is an “Arabesque”, the first of 2 that she wrote. Despite being from later in her composing career, the style has changed little in comparison to the Op.35 set and the other preceding pieces. This is a clever little piece alternating between serious and cheerful, again with plenty for the pianist to do. Another memorable little piece which is marvellously played.

By the time Chaminade wrote her “Poème provençal” pieces, collected together as Op.127, it was 1908 and her style had evolved to a more contemplative manner. Mr. Viner in his notes states that he thinks that these are “most inspired final productions” and I do not disagree. These 4 pieces are more inward looking and less “salon” in style. Perhaps she sensed that times were changing and her earlier style was no longer as popular as it once had been? The second piece (“Solitude”) is aptly named, beautiful, full of unanswered phrases and rather meditative. The third of the set is entitled “La Passé” (“The Past”) and certainly has a whiff of reminiscence about it. Indeed, it reminds me strongly of something else, though I could not place it. Lastly, we have “Pêcheurs de nuit” (“Night Fishermen”), which is almost like a miniature symphonic poem for piano, evoking a scene suggested by the title and a storm in the middle. This is an outstanding little piece, excellently played (like the whole set) and certainly not your standard “salon” music.

In complete contrast to the drama of the preceding track, there follows “La lisonjera” – “The Flatterer”. This was one of Chaminade’s most famous pieces. It is more awkward than it looks on the page. There are plenty of complex leaps and figurations to negotiate, all requiring a lightness and witty charm as indicated by the title. To my ears, there is a slight Spanish lilt to the music which is, again, fantastically played here.

Chaminade’s Op.76 set of pieces, “Romances sans paroles” was published in 1893 and includes some of her more popular works. They cover a variety of moods. The first is “Souvenance” (“Recollection”) and the opening theme is recalled several times throughout its 2’07’’, each time a little more fleetingly before it ends serenely. “Elevation” follows, with, perhaps predictably, a rising theme building to a powerful climax which is quite a surprise! The crescendo build-up is impressively handled and sounds like an integrated whole rather than a disjointed collection of themes. Thirdly, we have an “Idyll” – a wistful little piece which travels along rather happily, with special mention of the joyous middle section from around 1’26’’ which could easily be another earworm... “Eglogue” follows with more charming happiness abounding. The central contrasting episode is wonderful and wonderfully played! The “Chanson brétonne” which follows again sounds like something I’ve heard before – perhaps Saint-Saëns used it somewhere in his Op.7 organ works which I reviewed last year? This is a much craggier and more imposing work than the rest of the set and contains much of interest. Lastly, there is an elegant “Méditation” which contains some gorgeous writing for piano and some equally lovely playing. Interestingly, Mr. Viner states that this is well within the reach of amateur pianists, so I shall have to seek out the music! This set is again superbly played with excellent phrasing and articulation and a real sense of commitment to the music.

The final piece on this generously filled disc is the so called “Thème varié” which, as Mr. Viner points out, isn’t really a theme and variations but a cunningly constructed interpolation of 2 contrasted but related themes. There is no shortage of technical difficulties here and all is dealt with brilliantly. I really do like this little piece, which possesses a simple charm and plenty of variation within its nearly 5 minutes’ duration.

The excellent booklet notes by Mark Viner are informative and interesting and the recorded sound is clear and bright. Overall, this is a superb collection of piano music by a sadly neglected figure who really should be heard more often on recordings and also in concert. In the hands of the superb pianist Mark Viner, this music, which somewhat disparagingly might have been termed “salon” music, is raised to the level of something really special. So go and buy this disc and spend a very enjoyable hour and a quarter in the company of Cécile Chaminade. I now have a new favourite disc of her piano music and I hope for a volume 2 played by the splendid Mark Viner at some point in the future!

Jonathan Welsh
Pierette, Air de ballet, Op. 41 [2:23]
6 Etudes de concert, Op. 35: I. Scherzo [3:04]
6 Etudes de concert, Op. 35: II. Automne [6:17]
6 Etudes de concert, Op. 35: III. Fileuse [4:35]
6 Etudes de concert, Op. 35: IV. Appassionato [2:53]
6 Etudes de concert, Op. 35: V. Impromptu [3:37]
6 Etudes de concert, Op. 35: VI. Tarentelle [3:59]
Les sylvains in D Major, Op. 60 [3:17]
Arabesque No. 1, Op. 61 [4:33]
Poème provençal, Op. 127: I. Dans la lande [3:14]
Poème provençal, Op. 127: II. Solitude [4:10]
Poème provençal, Op. 127: III. Le passé [3:34]
Poème provençal, Op. 127: IV. Pêcheurs de nuit [4:18]
La lisonjera, Op. 50 [3:28]
6 Romances sans paroles, Op. 76: I. Souvenance [2:07]
6 Romances sans paroles, Op. 76: II. Elévation [2:31]
6 Romances sans paroles, Op. 76: III. Idylle [2:40]
6 Romances sans paroles, Op. 76: IV. Eglogue [2:27]
6 Romances sans paroles, Op. 76: V. Chanson brétonne [1:53]
6 Romances sans paroles, Op. 76: VI. Méditation [4:36]
Thème varié in A Major, Op. 89 [4:19]

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