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Louise FARRENC (1804-1875)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op.32 (1841) [30.34]
Overture No. 1 in E minor, Op.23 (1834) [6.59]
Overture No. 2 in E flat, Op.24 (1834) [7.06]
Grand Variations on a theme by Count Gallenberg, Op.25 (c.1838) [13.37]
Jean Muller (piano)
Solistes Européens Luxembourg/Christoph König
rec. 2017/18, Grand Auditorium, Philharmonie Luxembourg
World première recording (Variations)
NAXOS 8.574094 [58.23]

Having suffered from over a century of near-total neglect since her death, the music of Louise Farrenc has gradually been the subject of rehabilitation over the past twenty years or so – to the extent that of the four works on this CD, three have been recorded before and there is only one world première for which Naxos can take credit here. Mind you, that work is the weakest link on this admirable disc. Farrenc made her career in nineteenth-century Paris as a concert pianist, and the set of variations on a theme by Count Wenzel Robert von Gallenberg (who had married the dedicatee of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata) presented here were clearly written with her own abilities and repertoire in mind. Now I know that it is a truism that many of the best sets of variations are constructed on the basis of insignificant or even downright tawdry themes, but that does not necessarily mean that a poor theme will guarantee a masterpiece. And while the theme by Count Gallenberg is indeed a pretty unpromising one, Farrenc’s treatment of it (while being technically assured) has little to recommend it beyond a surface glitter and fairly conventional decoration in the style of Liszt but without the last ounce of innovatory spark that would enable it to be more than an occasional piece of concert display.

Which is strange, because the other three earlier works on this disc all disclose a measure of originality and invention that makes it easy to understand how the music of Farrenc won the approval of such a critic as Berlioz (who was not by any means reluctant to be thoroughly rude about music that failed to measure up to his exacting standards). It is amazing to realise that not only Berlioz, in the decade following Beethoven’s death, was prepared to be so radical in his reinterpretation of tonality as Farrenc is in her first symphony – and even more so in the two overtures which preceded this. Her willingness to indulge in sudden shifts of key are as spectacular as anything to be found in Schubert – and the music of the latter would have been almost unknown in Paris at this time – and far more adventurous even than the youthful Mendelssohn. The symphony itself does contain one feature which harkens back to pre-Beethovenian models. Where Beethoven had progressively substituted a scherzo movement for the minuet which had generally satisfied his predecessors such as Haydn and Mozart, Farrenc makes no bones whatsoever about reverting to the title (and form) of a minuet for her third movement. But her treatment of the dance is far removed from classical models, being altogether on a bolder scale (with a contrasted trio section) and a minuet whose brusque accents anticipate the style of much later symphonies who employed dance sections in their scores such as Bruckner and even Dvořák. Ivan Moody’s informative booklet note also makes apposite references to Schumann, who admired Farrenc’s piano music; I was also struck by parallels with Wagner’s early Symphony written at much the same time.

The slow movements of Farrenc’s later symphonies (she wrote three, the latter two of which have already been recorded by these same artists on an earlier Naxos release) are effusions of passion and melody in a thoroughly romantic mould; in her first symphony she was more circumspect, but her opening and closing movements – again adopting conventional classical form – show a persistent break with tradition in the manner in which she will, even in the closing bars of a coda, suddenly shift into a distant and foreign key for a moment to provide a real thrill of additional excitement.

There are currently only two discs listed on ArkivMusic which come into competition with the items featured here – the first symphony on a 1998 CPO release featuring Farrenc’s first and third symphonies played by the Hanover Radio orchestra under Johannes Goritzki, and the two overtures coupled with the second symphony by the same artists issued in 2004. The orchestra on the CPO discs is larger and more resonantly recorded, which provides more weight in dramatic passages, but at the expense of a balance where the brass and winds tend to dominate the strings. By comparison the clarity of the new Naxos issues brings its own rewards, and the interpretations are to a large extent complimentary. This is music, like Mendelssohn or Beethoven, which allows for a wide variety of approach and we benefit from this. The playing of the Solistes Européens is excellent throughout, well recorded, and Christoph König is an engaging and committed conductor. The Naxos price should also encourage experimentation.

The booklet notes by Ivan Moody come with a French translation, but the artists’ biographies are in English only. The cover illustration is appropriately Parisian, but the prominence given to the Eiffel Tower might have startled the composer since it was only constructed some time after her death.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

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