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Louise FARRENC (1804-1875)
Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op 32 [31.23]
Symphony No 3 in G minor, Op /36 [33.27]
Insula Orchestra/Laurence Equilbey
rec. 4-6 March 2021, Auditorium Patrick Devedjian – La Seine Musicale, Boulogne-Billancourt, France
ERATO 9029669852 [64.51]

Louise Farrenc was a significant figure in the development of French music, not simply by virtue of her own compositions, but as virtuoso pianist, teacher and promoter of the work of others. She had, for her time, great advantages: her family were hugely supportive of her talents and her training as a pianist began early. She was tutored by Cecile Soria, a pupil of Clementi, and took lessons with both Hummel and Ignaz Moscheles. At fifteen, she began composition lessons with Anton Reicha, with whom she would study for many years. Perhaps her greatest fortune was in 1821 to marry Aristide Farrenc, a distinguished flautist who turned his attention to music publication – she assisted him with the very successful Éditions Farrenc. Such was her reputation that she was appointed Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory in 1842.

That she had opportunities denied to other aspiring women cannot be denied, but neither can the quality of her music. Many compositions (33 of 49 with opus numbers) were, unsurprisingly, for piano, but her chamber music, in a variety of forms, is notable for its quality. Relatively little of her output is for the voice, but her themes were frequently dramatic and romantic. Her orchestral works are limited – three symphonies, a couple of overtures, and two sets of Grand Variations for piano and orchestra.

The strongest influence on her symphonies was Beethoven. There is a Beethovenian toughness throughout and there are similarities in orchestration and phrasing. In the first half of the 19th century, the influence of Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn was little noticed in France. But to say the symphonies are in the style of Beethoven is not to treat them as mere pastiche. They have their own energy and forward thrust: they are interesting works in their own right.

In form, both are in the conventional four movements, though in Symphony No.1, the Scherzo is replaced by a minuet with something of late-Haydn in its inspiration. The First Symphony, composed in 1841, had to wait for its premiere until 1845, in Brussels. The Third, from 1849, was more immediately successful, premiered with the Société des concerts du Conservatoire in the same year. In some ways this is by a tiny margin the finer of the two symphonies here, but neither is negligible – each is full of ideas, moments of great charm, contrasts and reveal imaginative orchestration within their chosen style. And they are immensely enjoyable, with rich rewards.

Laurence Equilbey and her period orchestra give magnificent, muscular yet sensitive performances. There is nothing tentative, and a sense of keen enjoyment is evident throughout. The two symphonies have no need for special pleading, and I hope there will be a companion disc with the missing symphony and other orchestral pieces.

Michael Wilkinson

Previous review: John Quinn

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