SONG OF THE HIGH HEELS and other novelties

An extraordinary set crammed with rarities (Compositrices, ‘New Light on French Romantic Women Composers’ Blue Zane BZ2006, 8cds, c£41.00) features 21 composers, most of them all-but-unknown and all of them women, the standard of musical invention easily the equal of most men from any given period. Take the 18th century composer Hélène de Montgeroult, a pupil of Dussek and Clementi, whose 24-minute Piano Sonata in F Minor Op. 5 No. 2 (Mihály Berecz) is a model of elegance and tasteful invention, a real find. Cécile Chaminade, so long confined to domestic piano stools with a charming if faded morceau named Autumn, is represented by two striking orchestral works, a Concertino for Flute and Orchestra (Claire Le Boulanger), music full of fantasy and caprice, and the Callirhoé ballet suite (conductor David Reiland), its delightful ‘Pas des écharpes’ second movement scored with the utmost delicacy. Why don’t we hear it programmed alongside, say, Massenet, Delibes, Chabrier or Fauré?  And there’s Augusta Holmès, originally Anglo-Irish and a disciple of César Franck whose influence on her 15-minute tone poem Andromède (conductor Leo Hussain) is fairly obvious, and yet the piece arrives through the cipher of a notably individual voice. 

Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3 (1847, David Reiland again) receives what by my calculations is its third recording but considering that it should by now be a standard repertory piece, that’s no bad thing. Past comparisons with Schumann and Mendelssohn have limited validity. I’d rather opt for the Swedish master Franz Berwald (1796-1868), another composer who tended to think ‘on the slant’. Farrenc like him, is nearly always slightly off-piste yet consistently gripping. The Introduction and ‘Chant de douleur’ from Marie Jaëll’s Oassiane (Hussain again, with soprano Anaïs Constans), is extremely dramatic, reminiscent perhaps of Liadov in epic mode. But for me the best prize among many is the Grande Fantasie-Quintette by the mystically-inclined Rita Strohl (Ismaël Margain [piano], with the Hanson Quartet), music fashioned just a few years after Franck’s Quintet and in many respects just as impressive. Between two sizeable outer movements (the finale is a quarter-hour set of variations) comes a Mendelssohnian scherzo and a whimsical ‘intermezzo’. 

The point that strikes me again and again about most of these composers is – if I may slip into the rather rude vernacular for a single phrase – that they ‘cut the crap’. Pomposity, bombast, quasi-philosophical posing, and expansionist excess are unknown to them. What they write is what they mean, nothing more and nothing less. The featured selections range over chamber music, orchestral works, piano pieces and songs. Performance standards are extremely high, and the recordings are superb. Given that concise but informed annotations are provided this has to be one of the most important CD sets of the last fifty years or so, and forget the ‘elephant in the room’ gender issue. This is for the most part quality music.

Yuja Wang’s ‘The American Project’, DG 486 4478, c£11.50 features two works written especially for her, an itchy post-Minimalist solo by Michael Tilson Thomas ‘You Come here Often’? Keep your ears peeled for an offstage a woolf whistle at 3:36. Not that I’m surprised given the image of Wang on the CD cover, posing provocatively on a backless chair, all legs and high heels. I spontaneously recalled the occasion years ago when at radio 3 a colleague mistakenly called Delius’s Song of the High Hills, his Song of the High Heels. A slip of the tongue then, but an apt description in this context. Abrams’s Concerto swings in and out of various modes, Westside Story one moment, naked boogie another, then mirroring John Adams before recalling either André Previn, Rachmaninov or Rhapsody in Blue. But this is no derivative mishmash, more a skateboard down memory lane, and an enjoyable one at that. Wang’s playing is stunning while Abrams has the Louisville Orchestra bop or swing with her. All I can do is sit back and envy them.

Moving back to terra firma pianist Peter Donohoe’s latest studio work includes a second volume of Mendelssohn Songs without Words (Chandos CHAN 20267, c£14.00), performances that capture the impulsiveness of Op. 85 No. 3, the skipping jollity of Op. 102 No. 3 (a piece for children) and the mellow poetry of the ‘Venetian Gondola Song’ (Op.30 No. 6), all of which – and much more – he focuses with his usual intelligence and feel for the musical moment. The programme opens with what is possible Mendelssohn’s greatest solo piano work, the Variations sérieuses, music memorably recorded years ago by Rachmaninov, Horowitz and Cortot, and it ends with a Mendelssohn perennial, the sparkling Scherzo from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ as transcribed by Rachmaninov. This is a most winning programme, civilised, richly melodic, easy to listen to and realistically recorded. The equally recommendable Volume One is on CHAN20252.

Although composed during straitened circumstances and left unfinished Mozart’s Sonata No. 15 in F major (tailed, for practical purposes, by a Rondo in the same key) has always struck me as one of the masterpieces of the genre, principally because of the heavenly central Andante (nine minutes as played here by Donohoe), as much a song – or aria – without words as any of Mendelssohn’s, an inwardly dramatic, breathing entity filled with pathos, music that modulates from key to key as if driven to transform by some mystical outside force. Donohoe is bountiful in his expressive reportage (on Mozart Piano Sonatas, Vol 5, SOMM SOMMCD 0648, c£10.00) and the same CD also contains two further sonata masterpieces, No. 13 in B flat and No. 3 in the same key (which sounds much later than it is). If you’re about to teach these pieces you couldn’t do better than choose Donohoe as a model interpreter.

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