February 27, 2020
Louise Farrenc: Etudes and Variations for Solo Piano. Joanne Polk, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Laura Netzel: Tarentelle; Humoresque; Suite, Op. 33; La Gondoliera; Berceuse et Tarentelle; Elfrida Andrée: Sonata in B-flat; Amanda Röntgen-Maier: Sonata in B minor. Paula Gudmundson, flute; Tracy Lipke-Perry, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The recent focus on giving women their due in music and many other fields has sometimes led to presentation of less-than-compelling material that is offered only because it was created by females. At other times, though, works, musical and otherwise, show up that are excellent in and of themselves and just happen to have been written by women. That is the case with the new Steinway & Sons recording of piano music by Louise Farrenc (1804-1875): there is a great deal of marvelous material here, no matter its provenance. But lest contemporary opinion be too quick to attribute these works’ obscurity solely to the fact that their composer was a woman, it is worth recalling that much other music of the same time period received extremely high praise for a while and then fell into near-total obscurity – the creations of Kalkbrenner, Thalberg, Pixis and Herz, for instance. In a few other cases, piano music that fell into near-oblivion has recently been revived through the efforts of a champion, or a few of them: Alkan’s comes immediately to mind. And Farrenc, who was respected and successful in her own time, may well have found just the needed modern champion in Joanne Polk, who performs on this CD with utter dedication and compete involvement in the material. Indeed, Polk treats some of the works here as rather more consequential than they are: the weakness of Farrenc’s music lies in its superficiality and its reasons for being – partly to display Farrenc’s own considerable talents as a piano virtuoso, partly to help train the would-be virtuoso students whom she taught for 30 years at the Paris Conservatoire. Whether the Farrenc piano pieces heard here will prove to have staying power is to be determined – but whether they make an excellent impression in Polk’s hands is not: that is already quite clear. Display pieces these may be, but Polk displays them to excellent effect, in the process providing great insight into Farrenc’s compositional skill as well as what were clearly her considerable performance abilities. Three works here are from the standard-for-its-time category of variations on exotic or well-known tunes. Air Russe Varié is of the former type, subjecting a folk melody to a wide variety of intricate presentations. Les Italiennes, Op. 14: No. 1, Cavatine de Norma falls into the well-known-tune area, using a still-famous Bellini melody as its basis; likewise, Souvenir des Huguenots rings multiple changes – very effectively – on an excerpt from Meyerbeer’s sprawling and once super-popular opera. Collectively, these three works shine a light on Farrenc as virtuoso; but they take up only one-third of Polk’s recital. The remainder of the CD focuses on Farrenc as teacher – and here the material, although clearly created with an academic purpose, rises well above its reason for being, as the three sets of variations do not. Farrenc wrote 30 etudes in major and minor keys, collecting them in two “books” published as her Op. 26. Polk offers Nos. 3, 5, 9-12, 14 and 15 from Book I, and Nos. 17, 18, 21, 22, 24, 25 and 29 from Book II. This half-helping of the totality is more than enough to whet the appetite for a recording of all 30 of these beautifully formed pieces. Farrenc’s etudes do not push the boundaries of the form into near-unrecognizability, as Alkan’s do: their instructional elements remain clear and in the forefront, and their lengths are in the modest two-to-five-minute range. But within their genre, these etudes offer far more listening pleasure than most, thanks to Farrenc’s well-constructed themes and the way she combines specific forms of intricacy with genuinely enjoyable music-making – a fine way to captivate piano students. Thus, the galloping Presto of No. 11, the finely constructed neo-Baroque two-voice fugue of No. 12, the heart-on-sleeve Andante affettuoso of No. 15, the juxtaposition of the piano’s high and low ranges in No. 22, the bravura Allegro energico of No. 25 – these elements and many others display Farrenc’s compositional prowess in a distinct way, in addition to and independent of the pieces’ academic value. It is by no means certain that Farrenc’s piano music – or, for that matter, her other music, which includes everything from chamber pieces to three symphonies – will go through a complete revival for 21st-century audiences. But Polk’s recording constitutes a strong argument in favor of hearing a good deal more of it a good deal more frequently.
The rediscoveries on a new MSR Classics flute-and-piano CD are more modest, and while they too have their pleasures, there is less that comes across as distinctive in the works of Laura Netzel (1839-1927), Elfrida Andrée (1841-1929), and Amanda Röntgen-Maier (1853-1894) – at least those heard here – than there is in those of Farrenc. Part of the issue with this disc featuring Paula Gudmundson and Tracy Lipke-Perry is that only one piece on it, Netzel’s Suite, Op. 33, was actually written for flute and piano. The other pieces were intended for violin and piano. Röntgen-Maier’s was transcribed by Carol Wincenc; the remaining works were arranged by Gudmundson herself. Certainly there is nothing wrong with wanting to expand the repertoire for one’s own instrument, and certainly these pieces generally sound fine on flute. But it is a bit much to ask an audience of non-performers to discover or rediscover all this music and explore its merits while hearing it in a different instrumentation from that which the composers intended. The pieces are pretty much what one would expect from their titles: Netzel’s Tarentelle is bouncily rhythmic; her Humoresque flows pleasantly; her Suite explores considerable technical and expressive territory for the flute, for which it was written; La Gondoliera has a gentle, meandering quality throughout; and Berceuse et Tarentelle contrasts lyrical, long-lined warmth with considerable bounce and perkiness – the work’s conclusion is especially pleasing. Andrée’s sonata, although pleasant enough, is not particularly distinctive either thematically or compositionally: it is enjoyable to hear but rather forgettable in its surface-level way. Röntgen-Maier’s sonata is more substantive and, thanks to its minor key, has a stronger emotional pull – if not really any significant depth. The extended first movement (half the work’s 20-minute total length) sounds violinistic in its runs and in the interrelationship of the two instruments; indeed, parts of the flute part border on shrillness here. The second movement gestures toward plaintiveness without quite attaining it, and the good-humored finale bubbles along attractively enough but without ever quite establishing a distinctive compositional voice. So this is a disc featuring discovery or rediscovery of music by three female composers who, like so many male composers of their time, were certainly competent and capable of producing well-crafted works that skilled performers such as Gudmundson and Lipke-Perry can play with dedication and involvement. But the fact that these composers were women does not make their works any more inventive or engaging than the works of moderately capable composers who were men. This is an enjoyable enough (+++) disc, to be sure, and flute players in particular may welcome the chance to expand their repertoire by considering the performance of some of this material. There are, however, no major revelations here of unjustly neglected brilliance that fell victim to gender imbalance.