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La Muse Oubliée
Antonio Oyarzabal (piano)
Rec. August, 2020 at Auditorio Manuel de Falla, Granada
IBS CLASSICAL IBS52021 [73:17]

This is the second recital of piano music by female composers that has come my way in recent months. The first, Pioneers played by Hiroko Ishimoto on the Grand Piano label (GP844 Review), contains several of the works on this collection but in two instances, Clara Schumann's three Romances op.21 and Vítězslava Kaprálová's April Preludes Oyarzabal gives us the opportunity to hear the whole set.

The earliest music here is a selection of pieces written for harpsichord by the French musician Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. She was a child prodigy born into a family of musicians; her father and grandfather were harpsichord makers and her father ensured that she was given the same education as her brothers. Louis XIV heard Jacquet play at the age of five and she eventually became a musician at his court; the five short pieces here are a Gavotte, two Rigaudons, a Menuet and a Rondeau and are taken from her suites written for the Sun King. We move forward to the 19th century Germanic tradition and the three Romances by Clara Schumann, dedicated to Brahms. The first is a passionate and intense elegy that lightens in the more agitated central section. The second is a delightful staccato caprice while the third is a sinuous and serpentine waltz with something of a moto perpetuo about it. To these could be added the works by Beach and Smyth; Ethel Smyth, composer, conductor and a leader in the suffrage movement is not someone that I would think to mention in the same breath as Clara Schumann but her sunny, lilting Klavierstück, written during her time in Leipzig is influenced by the music of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Compared to Ishimoto Oyarzabal is more in touch with the natural ebb and flow of Amy Beach's Scottish Legend as well as capturing the snap of the rhythms more convincingly making Ishimoto's performance on Grand Piano seem a little stiff and reserved.

Mel Bonis, or more fully Mélanie Hélčne Bonis, was forced into a marriage with a businessman twice her age who didn't like music. Prior to that she had studied with César Franck alongside Claude Debussy and Gabriel Pierné but marriage stifled her musical career to a great extent, a career that already suffered from her gender – she adopted Mel as a more ambiguous, less obviously female forename – and it wasn't until later in life that her creativity was allowed to flourish. Her Femmes de Légende are an apt choice for an album entitled the forgotten muse; the muses were legendary female deities who watched over science and the arts. The first of Bonis' legendary women is the deity Phoebe, goddess of the moon and prophecy in the time before the reign of Zeus. Bonis' portrait is a delicate nocturne with a melody set against constant rippling arpeggios. Shakespeare's Desdémona has more than hint of early Debussy in her make-up whilst the Lady of the Lake, Viviane is more vivacious in her tripping scherzo. Echoes of Debussy's Reflets dans l'eau can be heard in the flowing arpeggios that wreath Mélisande's melody. I had previously not explored the music of Mel Bonis after hearing what I considered some very dull and unimaginative pieces; I can't now remember what they were but I have revised my opinion – these are beautiful character pieces with a marvellous blend of impressionism and 19th century romanticism.

Emiliana de Zubeldia is a completely new name to me. Born in the Basque region in Navarra she moved to Paris and studied there with pianist Blanche Selva and Selva's teacher Vincent D'Indy before marrying and moving to Mexico where she became the head of music at Sonora University. Her set of sketches of a Basque afternoon mix folk elements with late romanticism and something of the impressionism of Ravel or Debussy; if the language is relatively conservative there are some gently piquant harmonies. The first four pieces evoke nostalgic feelings associated with the woods and mountains of her homeland with titles like into the woods and the echo in the mountains while the fifth, a souvenir of Usandizaga, is wreathed in arpeggios and whole tone harmonies. It pays homage to José María Usandizga (1887-1915) a fellow Basque who also studied with D'Indy and who wrote operas including High in the mountains written in the Basque language. The final piece, returning home, is a humorously stubborn little march.

More overtly impressionist is the music of Lily Boulanger who died tragically early at the age of 24. In her short life she won the Prix de Rome with her sumptious Faust et Hélčne and composed a respectable body of worthy music. From 1914 come the three pieces recorded here; D'un vieux jardin, stately and lyrical with its constant and unexpected shifts of harmony, the gentle waltz D'un jardin clair, its final bars fading away in a distant peal of bells and the bustling Cortčge, full of life and colour. Germaine Tailleferre's beautifully sunny pastorale fits very nicely in this recital after the Zubeldia works; it opens with a lilting, almost baroque sicilienne but grows more passionate and complex as the work progresses. Her two pieces appeared a quarter of a century later. The larghetto has a hypnotic feel to it with its melody unfolding over a constantly repeated C sharp. There is a relaxed and satisfyingly tonal feel to the whole work despite its intricate exploration of a host of different harmonies and the final bars and major key ending put me in mind of Bach. Its companion is a haunting little valse lente, an arrangement of a two piano piece dating from 1928.

Two Russian influences come from non-Russian sources. Mana Zucca's passionate C sharp minor Prelude opens the recital and though it is very different from Rachmaninov's Prelude in the same key there is more than a touch of the Russian composer in its grand melancholic gestures. Mana Zucca, born Gussie Zuckerman, was a composer, actress, singer and pianist who was born in New York. Pianophiles might recognise her name from Shura Cherkassky's occasional encore pieces Zouave drill and Fugato-humoresque; it is nice to hear her more lyrical side. It is Scriabin's intoxicating post-Chopinesque writing that is conjured up in Lücija Garüta's heady Prelude in E. Another unfamiliar composer Garüta was born in Latvia and after studying with Jānis Mediņš amongst others she travelled to Paris where she studied piano with Alfred Cortot and composition with Paul Dukas going on to teach at the Latvian Conservatoire. Her works include the cantata Dievs, Tava zeme deg! (God, your land is burning!) which was banned under the Soviet regime. Finally we hear the set of Dubnová preludia (April Preludes), written by the Czech composer Vítězslava Kaprálová in 1937. On her Pioneers CD Ishimoto chose just the second of the set, a work I described as having disquieting harmonies and an endlessly shifting mood. I find that much can be said about its fellow preludes. The rising triplets of the first with their shimmering background grudgingly give way to a skipping dotted rhythm motif that bounces through several starkly contrasted harmonies until the insistent opening returns;this firmly establishes itself with declamatory parallel chords before almost mocking the dotted rhythm in the final bar. The third is a gentle study in contrapuntal writing with a folk-like melody and with echoes of Prokofiev in the more lyrical of his Visions fugitives. The final prelude is an exuberant dance that alternates duple and triple time and tries to hide its good nature behind spiky discords, ultimately without success. More advanced still is the Prelude no.6 by Ruth Crawford Seeger. Its rising ostinato of double notes accompanied by a sombre melody and low chords certainly reflect the andante mystico tempo marking.

Almost as an encore Oyarzabal plays the Mélodie by Fanny Mendelssohn, taken from two sets of three Mélodies, opp.4 and 5. This is a little gem and it is safe to say that this and indeed its companions would fit very well alongside her brother's Songs without words – it would be interesting to hear them in recital interspersed with these more familiar pieces. Oyarzabal has planned this recital thoughtfully and imaginatively; there is an admirable mix of style and it still comes as something of a shock to think that music of this quality has more often than not had to hide itself away or just plain been ignored simply because of its creator's gender. Fanny Mendelssohn is a perfect case in point; despite writing over 400 works her early songs were only issued with her brother's name on them and it was only near the end of her short life that she offered anything up for publication. The presentation is appealing, a gatefold sleev with portraits of all the composers featured and the informative notes by Eva Sandoval are in Spanish and English. The recorded sound is warm and clear and Oyarzabal's playing is exceptional throughout. I don't think there is anything here that doesn't make me think I wonder what else she wrote? That I would be more than happy to hear it played by Antonio Oyarzabal hopefully speaks for itself.

Rob Challinor

Previous review: Nick Barnard

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 (1909/1913/1922) [10:03]
Élisabeth Jacquet DE LA GUERRE (1665-1729)
Sélection de Pičces de Clevecin (1687 and 1707) [6:02]
Ethel SMYTH (1858-1944)
Klavierstück in E (c.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 ZUBELDIA (1888-1987)
Esquisses d'une aprčs midi Basque (1923) [5:57]
Germaine TAILLEFERRE (1892-1983)
Pastorale in C (1929) [3:28]
Deux pičces (1954) [4:03]
Ruth CRAWFORD SEEGER (1901-1953)
Prelude No.6 'Andante mystico' (1927) [2:52]
Lücija GARÜTA (1902-1977)
Prelude in E (1927) [3:10]
Vítězslava KAPRÁLOVÁ (1915-1940)
April Preludes (1937) [8:35]
Fanny MENDELSSOHN (1805-1847)
Mélodie Op.4 No.2 (1847) [1:39]