La Muse Oubliée
Antonio Oyarzabal (piano)
rec. Auditorio Manuel de Falla Granada, Spain 28-30 August 2020
IBS CLASSICAL IBS52021 [73:17]
This is a well-planned and executed survey of music by thirteen women composers. Their names range from the relatively familiar; Clara Wieck-Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn and Ethel Smyth through to the near-unknown; Emiliana de Zubeldia and Lūcija Garūta being being completely new to me at least. The neat premise behind this disc La muse oubliée [the forgotten muse] is to return to the mythical origins of the Muses. Eva Sandoval in her liner explains that the original Greek Muses were the nine Goddess/protectors of the Sciences and Liberal Arts and that over time the term “muse” has shifted from being a creator to simply an inspirer of Art. This disc seeks to document music that refutes any kind of passivity or lack of aspiration by the composers represented. In this pianist Antonio Oyarzabal has succeeded triumphantly with the standard of the music across the disc’s thirty four tracks consistently high
- as is its execution. Given that the music presented was written between the late 17th and mid 20th Centuries it is no surprise that there is a wide range of style and expression. A notable facet of Oyarzabal’s sympathetic and technically adept playing is that he moulds his style to each individual piece from the clipped clarity of Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre’s Les pičces de clavecin through to the meditative and exploratory Andante Mystico of Ruth Crawford Seeger.
By trying to include as many composers as he does here, there is a slight risk in Oyarzabal’s programme that the disc becomes a succession of appealing miniatures but although several of the pieces here are slight in terms of length, none are insubstantial. A case in point are the six Equisses d’une aprčs midi Basque by the Spanish composer Emiliana de Zubeldia. The liner rightly notes the influence of Debussy and Ravel but this is a truly delightful set even though the complete suite runs just shy of six minutes. An interesting recurring narrative for these composers is a prodigious youthful talent that the society and age in which they were born could not deny. So while Robert Schumann might write of his wife Clara; “[having] children and a husband who is always living in the realms of imagination do not go well with composition”, the Three Romances Op 21 recorded here were written at the height of her domestic turmoil in the years that her husband attempted suicide and was committed to an asylum. These are a very impressive and polished group of works. For sure, the influence of other major keyboard composers of the time can be heard – but who could completely ignore giants such as Chopin or indeed her own husband. These works are not unfamiliar on disc but again Oyarzabal is fluent and assured.
While some of the works presented here are intended as polished miniatures, others offer something more substantial. Vítězslava Kaprálová’s April Preludes certainly fit that second category. This was my first encounter with Kaprálová’s work but she was clearly a massive talent. She died in France aged just twenty-five by which time she had written a significant body of work as well as establishing herself as a conductor. Her music is available via several recordings and these Preludes are – according to the liner – her most popular piano work. Her voice is quite individual but at the same time is a compelling fusion of contemporary and Czech folk influences. Mel Bonis is another composer whose music impresses me whenever I encounter it. The suite of four Femmes de Légende is in fact a group of individual pieces collected together after Bonis’ death by her great grand-daughter. The suite is a neat construction with each of the four pieces a musical portrait of a famous legendary/fictional woman. Again Oyarzabal is very good at differentiating and characterising these pen-pictures. What is clear from the liner is how several of the composers here continued to write in spite of differing and very trying personal circumstances; Boulanger endured debilitating ill-health through her short life, Bonis was forced into a marriage of convenience and Tailleferre was shot by her husband when he wanted her to terminate their unborn child. Not that any of these trials are evident from their music, but it does give a strong indication of how powerful the creative drive was in each of them to produce such impressive work in spite of their personal circumstances.
Amy Beach did not face such struggles personally or financially, which possibly explains why she was able to devote more time and energy to large-scale compositions – her Gaelic Symphony and Piano Concerto retaining a place in the repertoire when few other female composers did so. Her Scottish Legend Op 54 No
1 is another enjoyable and attractive 3:00 miniature with a distinctive Scottish ‘snap’ giving it a clear musical heritage. In some ways this is one of the less interesting works on the disc not because it lacks any musical quality but simply because it is just a musical miniature with no other pretentions. Much the same can be said of Mana Zucca’s Prelude Op 73. Zucca was another prodigy and clearly a remarkably talented all-round musician. She studied piano with Busoni and Godowsky – giving her concert debut at 8 years old with Beethoven’s 1st concerto with the New York Symphony. Later she had a flourishing career singing in Operetta and by the time she died aged 91 she had composed over 1000 works including two operas. Apart from a disc devoted to her piano music – which includes the Prelude given here – this body of work seems to have been forgotten. I suspect this is more to do with the style of the music rather than the gender of the composer. There are many male composers of the same period whose once-popular music has become little more than a foot-note in musical history. That is not to imply that it does not deserve to be better known but simply to accept that on occasion historical judgement can be harsh.
Someone whose stock seems to be on the rise in recent times is Ethel Smyth. For many years her name would appear in discussions of the English Musical Renaissance as some kind of ‘background colour’ but with few examples of her own music to support it. During her lifetime she was a doughty promoter of causes she believed in from her own music to Universal Suffrage and the rights of women. Indeed it is the strength of her own personality that has occasionally obscured the quality of her music. The Klavierstück in E offered here is a case in point – this is a student work from her time studying in Leipzig. For sure the influences of contemporary Romantic German composers are evident but perhaps more of a surprise is how well-crafted the work is for a young composer. The truth is her oeuvre has been over-shadowed by those of her near-contemporaries Elgar and Delius who were more distinctive musical voices.
Lili Boulanger’s Trois Morceaux are more familiar as of course are her compositions in general. Again these are quite slight pieces but as listeners we are more able to place that in the context of her other work, since most of it is available should people wish to seek it out. I still remain convinced that had Boulanger lived, she would have been one of the most important French composers of the 20th Century. Oyarzabal’s playing typifies the entire disc, sensitive to the detail and nuance in the music and realised with neat technique and an intuitive feel for the idiom.
The IBS Classical recording is good and unfussy. The acoustic in the Auditorio Manuel de Falla is warm without being overly resonant. Certainly the engineers and Oyarzabal succeed in placing the music itself front and centre as I am sure they intended. The CD is attractively packed in the now-common cardboard gatefold format including portraits of all the composers. The liner – in Spanish and English only - is especially useful given the unfamiliarity of many of the composers. I can imagine the dilemma of the programme compilers trying to decide which works to include and which to regretfully leave to one side. Where this disc succeeds triumphantly is by showcasing a wide range of musical styles all of genuine quality. Perhaps this does risk becoming a ‘box of delights’ – just as Lūcija Garūta’s Prelude in E intrigues, you are already moving onto Vítězslava Kaprálová! A multi-disc option covering exactly these same composers in greater depth would be ideal. It would be good to think we are reaching a point where the gender of a composer is irrelevant or at least not a perceived novelty but in the meantime this disc is a wholly successful recital of high quality music, perceptively performed.
Mana ZUCCA (1885-1981)
Prelude Op 73 [2:41]
Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
Scottish Legend Op 54 No 1 (1903) [3:00]
Mel BONIS (1858-1937)
Femmes de Légende (1909-1922) [10:03]
Élisabeth Jacquet DE LA GUERRE (1665-1729)
Selection de Pičces de Clavecin (1707) [6:02]
Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
Klavierstück in E (ca. 1877) [3:49]
Clara WIECK-SCHUMANN (1819-1896)
Drei Romanzen Op 21 (1853-55) [10:36]
Lili BOULANGER (1893-1918)
Trois Morceaux pour piano (1914) [6:36]
Emiliana DE ZUBELDÍA (1888-1987)
Equisses d’une aprčs midi Basque (1923) [5:57]
Germaine TAILEFERRE (1892-1983)
Pastorale (1929) [3:28]
Deux pičces (1928?) [4:03]
Ruth CRAWFORD SEEGER (1901-1953)
Prelude No 6 ‘Andante Mystico’ (1927) [2:52]
Lūcija GARŪTA (1902-1977)
Prelude in E (1927) [3:10]
Vítězslava KAPRÁLOVÁ (1915-1940)
April Preludes (1937) [8:33]
Fanny MENDELSSOHN (1805-1847)
Mélodie Op 4 No 2 (1847) [1:39]