May 07, 2020


Louise Farrenc: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3. Solistes Européens, Luxembourg, conducted by Christoph König. Naxos. $12.99.

     The extent to which Beethoven expanded the notion of what a symphony could be hovered over other composers throughout much of the 19th century, reaching near-mythic levels in light of Brahms’ well-known reluctance to undertake anything symphonic while constantly feeling the Beethovenian shadow. Some composers, such as Spohr, tried to continue matters in more-or-less Beethovenian mode, with a good deal of success in their own time but not much afterwards. Others, such as Schubert, looked in new directions but had considerable difficulty finding them: Schubert’s propensity for starting symphonies and leaving them incomplete is well-known. Still others, such as Schumann, undertook symphonies only reluctantly and produced ones mixing Beethoven’s influence with some genuinely new touches. Yet others, such as Mendelssohn, produced unique symphonies that sidestepped Beethoven rather than moving beyond his music. And some, such as Hummel, avoided writing symphonies altogether.

     Interestingly, when Brahms eventually produced his monumental First Symphony, he directly adopted elements of Beethoven while finding a way to expand and move beyond them: Brahms’ First is in C minor, the key of Beethoven’s Fifth, and the finale of Brahms’ work clearly and deliberately echoes the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth. Lesser symphonists than Brahms also found themselves drawn to C minor for their first work in the form: Mendelssohn’s First (which dates to 1824, while Beethoven was still alive) is in this key, and so is the first symphony (1841) by Louise Farrenc (1804-1875). Farrenc is a very fine composer who is being rediscovered largely because she was a successful woman musician at a time when it was extremely hard for women to gain acceptance in that area. But her music deserves to be heard more often for its own sake, not because of her gender: in addition to a variety of virtuosic works for piano (her own instrument, at which she excelled), Farrenc proved adept in creating chamber works and orchestral ones – including three symphonies.

     Farrenc’s symphonies have the interesting characteristic of sounding a great deal like the works of other post-Beethoven symphonists while, at the same time, having a distinct totality that shows Farrenc placing her own stamp on the material. Her first symphony’s debt to Beethoven is apparent on a first hearing; its hints of Mendelssohn and Schumann become clearer afterwards; but it never seems merely derivative of any of these composers, with Farrenc blending drama and lyricism in her own distinctive way.

     Naxos’ new recording of Farrenc’s Symphonies Nos. 2 (1845, in D) and 3 (1847, in G minor) shows the ways in which Farrenc developed symphonically as well as the ones in which she did not. The home keys of Farrenc’s first two symphonies are exactly those of Brahms’ first two, which were written decades later; but while Brahms’ Second solidifies something genuinely new in the symphonic realm, Farrenc’s Second mostly solidifies the impression left by her First – that of a skillful adopter and adapter of the approaches and techniques of other composers, someone able to absorb earlier and contemporary approaches to the symphony and give them her own stamp without, however, producing anything revolutionary or particularly forward-looking. Thus, Farrenc’s Second sounds like a combination of elements from Mozart and Beethoven: the attentiveness to winds is Mozartean (although not as far-reaching as in Schubert’s symphonies), while the seriousness with which the symphony announces itself through the slow introduction of its first movement proclaims a relationship with Beethoven. However, unlike Beethoven’s symphonies, which progress toward climactic finales, Farrenc’s second is front-weighted, the first movement being the longest and most significant. The most interesting movement, though, is the third, a Scherzo that takes cues from Beethoven but goes well beyond them into a level of drama and structural interest that set it apart not only from its basic model but also from Farrenc’s other Scherzo movements.

     Farrenc’s Third also emphasizes its first movement, which also features a slow introduction followed by a well-developed, extended Allegro. Farrenc could well have known that the key of this symphony is the same as that of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 – and Farrenc’s work, while it has no Mozartean intensity or contrapuntal mastery, does have some of the drive and minor-key insistence of Mozart’s work. As in all three of her symphonies, this one also has passing echoes of other composers’ work: here Mendelssohn and Schumann peek in from time to time. But there is also a Sturm und Drang quality to this symphony that makes it sound somewhat like the symphonies of another composer for whom Mendelssohn was a strong influence: Niels Gade (1817-1890). Yet here as in her other symphonies, Farrenc takes in material from other composers and works with it in a way that gives it her own stylistic stamp. These are not great symphonies or world-changing ones, but well-constructed post-Beethoven forays into a form that was not Farrenc’s primary focus but in which her work evinces considerable skill. Christoph König and the Solistes Européens, Luxembourg, play the symphonies with unapologetic propulsiveness coupled with a willingness to let their many lyrical sections flow gently and smoothly, without delving into deeply emotional territory – that was not Farrenc’s province in these pieces. All the Farrenc symphonies are worth hearing, and in fact worth hearing repeatedly, by listeners interested in high-quality, less-known symphonic music of the 19th century.

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