January 19, 2023


Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel: Three Pieces for Piano; Mélanie Bonis: Six Valses-Caprices; Cécile Chaminade: Six Pièces Romantiques; Marie Jaëll: Twelve Waltzes and Finale—excerpts; Amy Beach: Summer Dreams; Clara Schumann: March in E-flat. EStrella Piano Duo (Svetlana Belsky and Elena Doubovitskaya). Sheridan Music Studio. $20.

Haydn: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Nicola Porpora: Cello Concerto in G—Largo; “Giusto Amor, Tu Che M’Accendi”; Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Cello—fragment; Gluck: Dance of the Blessed Spirits. Christian-Pierre La Marca, cello; Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor; Adrien La Marca, viola; Julien Chauvin, violin and conducting Le Concert de la Loge. Naïve. $16.99.

     The rediscovery of worthwhile music by female composers has become something of a “thing” for people looking to redress the (correct) perception that women were long marginalized in music, as in so many other fields. But the emphasis is better placed on worthwhile than on women, since musical rediscovery in and of itself is less than enthralling if the re-found material is not worth an audience’s time. It is fashionable to create CDs with titles such as “In Her Own Voice,” which is the overall designation of a new recording featuring the EStrella Piano Duo (whose name is just silly: it always looks like a typesetting error rather than a combination of the initials of the performers’ first names). But the value of CDs such as this one lies far less in its “cause” elements than in the level of interest of the music itself. Thankfully, the recording by Svetlana Belsky and Elena Doubovitskaya has a lot more going for it than a politically correct notion of listening to it because of the gender of the six composers. Every one of the 26 tracks is a small jewel – some truly convincing, others more semi-precious than really valuable – and the playing by Belsky and Doubovitskaya raises the disc to a very high level indeed. Although nothing here can be called a major work, Three Pieces for Piano by Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn (1805-1847) is very much worth repeated hearings. Felix Mendelssohn’s older sister was known to have musical talent nearly at the level of her brother’s, but was entirely shaped by her family (including, to some extent, by Felix himself) into the expected 19th-century-female role of housewife. She performed only once in public and had no chance to publish any of her works until the year before her death – an event that precipitated Felix’s own death just a few months later. This set of three three-minute pieces from 1844 is in Fanny’s later style, in which she shows greater passion, clearer structure and more carefully modulated emotion than in her earlier works. Romantic the pieces may be, but they are not overly emotive, and Belsky and Doubovitskaya finely balance their charms. Six Valses-Caprices by Mélanie Bonis (1858-1937) are shorter and more surface-level pieces, nicely formed and with pleasant touches of wistfulness here and there. Six Pièces Romantiques by Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944) are late-Romantic works (1890) whose descriptive titles point listeners in general directions without directly illustrating specific scenes – although Idylle arabe and Danse hindoue partake of suitable exoticism. Four excerpts from Twelve Waltzes and Finale by Marie Jaëll (1846-1925) are pleasant enough, if rather evanescent. Of greater interest are the six movements of Summer Dreams by Amy Beach (1867-1944) – the suite dates to 1901 and more directly illustrates the scenes of its titles than does Chaminade’s work, with Beach’s Elfin tarantelle a particular charmer. The CD ends with the 1879 March in E-flat by Clara Schumann (1819-1896), one of the more remarkable figures of either gender in the Romantic era. This is a resolute and rather grand piece, at times almost Wagnerian in its strength and solidity, which at six-and-a-half minutes is by far the longest track on this disc. Indeed, listeners interested in discovering or rediscovering this music (and these composers) will be disappointed that the CD is quite short: just 46 minutes, which means the 25 items not by Clara Schumann average barely a minute and a half apiece. The result is a release consisting of excellent playing lavished on music that is in large measure insubstantial, if not quite inconsequential.

     Belsky and Doubovitskaya contextualize the music they perform by the era of its composition and the gender of the composers. Christian-Pierre La Marca and colleagues do something rather more interesting on a new Naïve CD whose two major offerings, Haydn’s Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, are very well-known indeed. The Haydn works begin and end the disc, while cello-focused pieces by other composers of Haydn’s era appear between them in an attempt to show both what influenced Haydn and what he in turn influenced. The approach is not wholly successful – the middle of the CD combines better and lesser material, original works and transcriptions, and the order is rather arbitrary – but the notion of fitting Haydn within a time frame and compositional approach including other composers is an attractive one. In particular, including two pieces by Nicola Porpora (1686-1758), who was Haydn’s mentor, is intriguing. A full concerto by Porpora would have been more revelatory than the single movement offered here, but the aria Giusto Amor, Tu Che M’Accendi from the opera Gli orti esperidi, “The Gardens of the Hesperides”), which includes obbligato cello as well as voice, is undeniably fascinating. The Porpora works are not given back-to-back, though: one follows the first Haydn concerto and the other precedes the second. In between the two Porpora pieces are a fragment (reconstructed by Robert Levin) of a Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and cello – Mozart’s only concertante work that includes a cello part; and the well-known Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice (in La Marca’s own transcription). The nine-and-a-half-minute Mozart fragment is very much worth hearing in any context – as with all unfinished Mozart music, it produces a feeling of deep regret that the composer did not complete it – but the light it sheds on Haydn, whose style strongly influenced Mozart, is at best a dim one. Similarly, the relationship between Gluck and Haydn, which scholars can certainly explore (and do), is not immediately apparent from the works here. La Marca’s performances of all the pieces are first-rate, and the other soloists working with him (Philippe Jaroussky and Adrien La Marca) approach the whole project with equal engagement and enthusiasm. Le Concert da la Loge under Julien Chauvin provides absolutely top-notch accompaniment throughout, and the CD as a whole is exemplary on multiple levels, even if not quite successful for non-scholars when it comes to showing the interrelationship among the cello approaches of these four composers. Listeners will enjoy it most by deeming it a very fine recording of the two Haydn cello concertos – with a variety of bonus material provided between the more-substantial works as a kind of musical palate cleanser.

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