FARRENC: Symphonies Nos. 1-3. Overtures in E min. & Eb / Insula Orch.; Laurence Equilbey, cond / Erato 5054197522130
FARRENC: Grandes variations sur un theme du Comte Gallenberg, Op. 25 (version for piano & orch.) / Jean Muller, pno; Soloistes Européens, Luxembourg; Christoph König, cond / available for free streaming on YouTube
FARRENC: Piano Quintets: No. 1 in A min., Op. 30; No. 2 in E, Op. 31 / Linos Ensemble: Winfried Rademacher, vln; Barbara Westphal, vla; Maria Blaumer, cel; Jörg Linowitzki, bs; Konstanze Eickhorst, pno / CPO 999194-2, also available for free streaming on YouTube in individual movements
FARRENC: Piano Trios: in Eb, Op. 33; in D min., Op. 34 / Nancy Oliveros, vln; Laura Sewell, cel; Mary Ellen Haupert, pno / Centaur CRC 3435
FARRENC: Sextet in C min. for Winds & Piano / Sonarsix: Martha Chan, fl; Eder Rivera, oboe; Victor Diaz Guerra, cl; Christopher Chung, bsn; Elizabeth Linares, Fr-hn; Bogang Hwang, pno / available for free streaming on YouTube
FARRENC: Nonet in Eb, Op. 38 / Minerva Chamber Players; Kevin Geraldi, cond / part of Centaur CRC 3092
FARRENC: Air Russe varié. Valse Brillante. Nocturne in Eb, Op. 49. Variations brillantes dur la cavatina d’Anna Bolena de Donizetti / Konstanze Eickhorst, pno / part of CPO 999 879-2, but also available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking titles above
FARRENC: 30 Études in All the Major and Minor Keys, Op. 26. 12 Brilliant Études, Op. 41. 20 Medium-Difficulty Études, Op. 42. 25 Easy Études, Op. 50 / Maria Stratigou, pno / Grand Piano GP 912-13
FARRENC: Variations Concertantes sur une Mélodie Suisse, Op. 20. Violin Sonata No. 1: I. Largo – Allegro; II. Poco adagio; III. Finale: Allegro vivace. Violin Sonata No. 2: I. Allegro grazioso; II. Scherzo: Allegro; III. Adagio; IV. Finale: Allegro / Gaëtane Prouvost, vln; Laurent Cabasso, pno / Integral Classic INT22116, also available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking movement titles above
FARRENC: Trio for Clarinet, Cello & Piano, Op. 44: I. Adagio – Allegro moderato; II. Adagio; III. Minuetto: Allegro; IV. Finale: Allegro / Daniel Ottensamer, cl; Stephan Koncz, cel; Christoph Traxler, pno / part of Decca 4857375, a 7-CD set; also available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking individual movement titles above
FARRENC: Trio for Flute, Cello & Piano in E min., Op. 45 / Emily Benyon, fl; Daniel Esser, cel; Sepp Grotenhuis, pno / available for free streaming on YouTube
FARRENC: Cello Sonata, Op. 46: I. Allegro moderato; II. Andante sostenuto; III. Finale: Allegro / Susan Lamb Cook, cel; Karen Rosenak, pno / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking individual movement titles above
I freely admit that I am often behind the curve (but not always) in discovering great musical talent from the past for the simple reason that my “bullshit radar” immediately goes up when some CD company starts touting so-and-so as a “forgotten genius” who turns out to be a mediocrity they happen to be pushing that month. As a result, I missed out on the Louise Farrenc revival, which seems to have started in 2015 with the release of these outstanding performances of her Piano Trios on Centaur, followed up by the recordings of her complete symphonies (three of them) and overtures (two) on Naxos, conducted by Christoph König.
But there was just something about this new release of her symphonies conducted by one Laurence Equilbey on Erato that piqued my curiosity, so I gave them a listen, and WOW am I glad I did!
Farrenc had an interesting and unusual background. An almost exact contemporary of Hector Berlioz, who admired her (he was born one year earlier than Farrenc and died six years before her), Jeanne-Louise Dumont came from a bohemian family in Paris (her father was a well-known sculptor). She grew up surrounded by artists of all types—sculptors and painters of both sexes in addition to musicians—and began piano lessons at a young age. When she was only 15, she was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire where her composition teacher was the well-known (and extremely good) Anton Reicha, but these were private lessons because women were forbidden to enroll in composition classes at that time! While at the conservatory, she began giving duo-recitals with a prize flute pupil, Aristide Farrenc, and married him when she was only 17 despite the fact that he was ten years older. After the marriage, Louise interrupted her education in order to perform with her new husband throughout France, but he soon tired of concert life and gave it up to start a music publishing company in Paris with Louise as his business partner…another “first” for her. Editions Farrenc became a leading classical music publisher for the next 40 years.
In addition to helping her husband with the publishing business, Louise returned to her studies with Reicha, after which she embarked on a solo concert career until 1826 when she gave birth to her daughter, Victorine. Victorine also became a concert pianist but, shockingly, died (of an undisclosed cause) at age 33, thus predeceasing her parents by 16 years. Yet Louise’s high reputation as a concert pianist led to her being given the position of Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory—the ONLY woman named to such a position in the entire 19th century although, as one might suspect, she was paid less than her male colleagues for a decade. Only after the triumphant premiere of her Nonet, in which the famous violinist Joseph Joachim took part, did she demand, and receive, equal pay.
Thus even before we get to the extremely high quality of her music, we can admire Farrenc for a number of reasons. Oh, yes, one other thing: she was such an excellent piano teacher that her pupils almost consistently won top prized in competitions throughout Europe.
As for the music, it is astonishing, particularly the Symphonies and the Piano Trios, because they sound so much like Beethoven that it’s almost scary—but Beethoven with a French accent, and Farrenc was inventive enough to not borrow (or even slightly alter) any themes by the great man. Throughout these major works one constantly hears the way she balanced French lyricism—and a distinctly French feeling for rhythm—with the sturm und drang of Beethoven. Like his music, hers shifts harmony around in an audacious manner and uses strong rhythms to propel her themes and variations. In short, her music has the style of Beethoven but completely different content and her own very personal way with musical construction and—dare I say it?—a more colorful sense of orchestration. Like Beethoven, there is always something going on in the inner voices of her symphonies, but unlike him, the distribution of the wind and brass parts are consistently more complex and complete. The finale of the first symphony reminded me, believe it or not, of the way Gluck handled the winds in his best opera scores.
One might say that since Reicha was her teacher, and Reicha had been a longtime friend of Beethoven’s, that this was inevitable, but please remember that Reicha taught numerous composition pupils in Paris and almost none of them picked up as much from Beethoven as Farrenc did. I’m also sure that she, like Berlioz, got to hear the groundbreaking performances of Beethoven’s complete symphonies by the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in the 1830s, but with her educational connection to Reicha she was already ahead of the curve.
In addition, one must remember that Parisian musical life during Farrenc’s lifetime centered almost completely around operas. “Pure” instrumental music of the sort she composed was simply not popular, which is probably one reason why she was either taken for granted or, worse yet, sloughed off. Farrenc longed to write an opera, the same way Berlioz did, but she was never offered a plot strong enough for her to consider, and she was not about to waste her talents cranking out Auber and Hérold-like frou-frou music just to please the masses, thus she never wrote one. Fortunately, her studies with Reicha and her obvious love of Beethoven led her to write symphonies.
And these symphonies are truly superb! I’m not just talking about their almost raw emotional power, but also about the extreme facility of her musical mind, the way she could create and develop themes and make them interesting…her superb use of dynamics, her occasional retreat from a “wall of sound” to an almost chamber-music-like treatment of the wind section (listen to the slow movement of the First Symphony, for instance), and always, always that keen dramatic sense of pacing and shaping the music. In fact, I would say that Farrenc’s First Symphony stands with those of Brahms and Mahler as one of the greatest “first symphonies” in music history—and that’s saying something.
Interestingly, however, all three of Farrenc’s symphonies are in a similar style although the themes are quite different. But look at the opus numbers: 32, 35 and 36, so they were written within a relatively brief span of time. Between concertizing, raising her daughter, teaching at the conservatory and helping her husband with their music publishing business, it’s a wonder that she had any time for composing at all. Happily, unlike poor Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, she was actively encouraged to compose, not discouraged from doing so.
The first movement of the second symphony contains some quirky rhythmic figures that could only have been written by a French composer (you’ll know what I mean as soon as you hear them). One also notes that, even more cleverly than Beethoven, she found a way to “hook” her themes and variants together in a continuous musical evolution rather that repeating and recapitulating the main melody. Of course, we must remember that she was “standing on Beethoven’s shoulders”—he was the originator of this style, she an extremely gifted acolyte–but it’s a shame that she didn’t evolve her symphonic gifts even further. She might have written a “Beethoven Ninth” type of piece that went beyond what he had accomplished. Small wonder Berlioz admired her. I wonder what Brahms or Wagner thought…but then again, Brahms was a misogynist who put down ALL women composers, even when at first he admired their music without knowing their gender, as in the case of Ethel Smyth. And like Smyth, Farrenc was no shrinking violet of a composer. Her music was power wrapped in a velvet glove.
Surprisingly, the Third Symphony starts not with a bang but soft, lyrical figures in G minor starting with a flute duet and branching out to other winds before the tempo and volume increase and the orchestra comes roaring into full focus. This is the one Farrenc symphony that, although based on Beethoven’s principles, sounds the most French and the least like him. Even in the first movement here, Farrenc includes some swirling figures that are not merely decorative but functional in a dramatic way, and in the second movement she created great tension by means of just one loud, dramatic passage, later using a brief two-part canon for the violas. The third movement is a roiling Scherzo in the minor with a decided undercurrent of menace about it. The last movement opens with a few jagged, edgy gestures played by the cellos before the other strings, and winds, move in for the kill. The variations she wrote around the 2:20 mark are simply phenomenal. She was moving even further away from copying Beethoven’s style and more towards finding her very own, which is one reason I said that had she continued she might have produced a masterpiece on the level of Beethoven’s Ninth. But just look at what a full plate she had at the time: wife, mother, part-time music publisher, full-time piano pedagogue. And Mahler whined about having to conduct for a living while trying to write his symphonies!
Moving on to the two concert overtures, we hear a sharp departure from the style and working methods of Beethoven, whose overtures from his mature period are almost like fantasias for orchestra with slow introductions, multiple themes which interact with one another, and an almost theatrical layout that puts a stronger emphasis on drama—at times almost gut-wrenching drama—than structure. Farrenc apparently thought differently of the overture. Her pieces with this title use minor keys, either as the basis for the work or as alternate harmonies, but they are in a generally steady rhythm from start to finish and, to my mind, modeled much more on the overtures of French operas (Berlioz’ operas excepted) of her time. This makes them, to my ears, less effective as musical drama—even Mozart’s Don Giovanni overture has more drama in it than these—and puts them in the category of high-level musical entertainment. They’re clearly well-constructed, but to my mind just miss the kind of tension and drama that she poured into her symphonies. If you wished to, you could talk over them and not miss too much, but since they are almost consistently loud from start to finish you probably wouldn’t be heard too well unless you turned the volume down.
After hearing Equilbey’s performance of these first two symphonies, I became curious and went to hear Christoph König’s recordings on Naxos. They weren’t the same and thus made much less of an impact. It wasn’t so much tempo—although Equilbey plays the first and last movements of each symphony faster than König, he often plays the interior movements a bit slower—so much as it was a greater emotional involvement as well as his way of always “nudging” the music forward even in slow passages, a technique that reminded me of such legendary conductors as Munch (oh, how he would have loved these symphonies had he known about them!), Kertesz, etc. In König’s hands, these are nice-sounding symphonies, but in Equilbey’s hands they are great ones.
The one thing I didn’t “get” about this album is the cover art. Although the drawing there is somewhat modeled after the portrait of Farrenc (see right)—the shape of the face and the nose are right—the eyes are larger, the mouth os smaller and more bowed, and this woman has a hair style and one of those stylized “sailor” outfits redolent of the Roaring ‘20s. What’s up with that?
Turning to her only other orchestral work, the Grandes variations sur un theme du Comte Gallenberg, we hear an even more different Farrenc, a composer of music in the typical French galant style of her time. Personally, I feel that this work was a sop to those critics who thought her symphonies too brash and, dare we say it, masculine for their tastes. Yes, the music is nicely written, but here Farrenc shies away from the audacious harmonic changes that permeated the symphonies. This almost sounds like 90% of Franz Liszt’s similar pieces for piano and orchestra, but I do recommend listening to it as something different in contrast to the strong temperament of the symphonies and overtures. From a compositional standpoint, it is put together “by the rules” and lacks both imagination and personality.
Next up we hear the Piano Quintets, written just before the symphonies, and they inhabit the same sound world. Either of these could have been converted into symphonic form without too much change, except, of course, for the richly detailed piano writing which I for one would not want to excise from these scores. Judging from these pieces and all her other piano writing, which call for not only virtuosity but extreme finger strength, she must have been quite a formidable performer—one might say the Teresa Carreño or Idil Biret of her day, a real lioness at the keyboard. No wonder she was able to make a good living for a time as a concert soloist, despite the Parisians’ laissez-faire attitude towards instrumental music. Here we also hear very elegant, singing lines for the violin, viola and cello, using the double bass to anchor the sound with its rich, deep tone, which she uses in a surprisingly muscular way. As in the symphonies and, as we shall hear, in virtually everything she wrote, Farrenc continually surprises the listener with those bold, powerful passages and her frequent-yet-subtle key changes. She was clearly a master of mood, contrast and drama in music, which makes it a double shame that she was never able to compose an opera.
My readers should understand that I’ve vetted a number of performances of every piece I write about here and thus take it for granted that the Linos Ensemble’s performances are the most emotionally strong and least “wussy” available. Shockingly, this recording was made 30 years ago, in 1993, long before anyone else seems to have noticed that Farrenc existed, but alas, their recording was issued on the CPO label, and CPO does absolutely no promotion for their recordings, no matter how outstanding they are. They just issue them, throw them out for sale with zero promotion, and hope for the best. Small wonder that we are only now appreciating how wonderful these works, and these specific performances, are. Thank goodness they’re still in print. My sole complaint is the sound quality, a bit over-reverberant for my taste. I like chamber music to be recorded with a crisp, forward sound so you can hear the instruments as if they’re playing in your living room, not in an empty locker room at a football stadium.
I also wonder if the strength and power of Farrenc’s music wasn’t somewhat off-putting to the French, who generally like their music light and airy rather than emotionally impactful. There is no getting around the fact that her music packs a wallop that is as far from Fauré, Chausson and Franck as one could possibly imagine. Remember, it took Saint-Saëns several years to establish himself in France for similar reasons. Farrenc’s Beethoven-ish Scherzos are perfect examples of what I mean; and poor Berlioz, writing not only emotionally strong music but in an idiosyncratic style that skirted conventional construction, had an even harder time finding acceptance. (Maybe he should have sat down with Louise and Aristide and had them publish his scores the way he wanted them…they might have been open to the proposition.) The opening of the second Piano Quintet sounds so much like Beethoven or late Schubert that it will startle you, but as usual Louise takes it different places, softening the contours for a while before again lowering the boom with an emotional charge forward.
The Piano Trios are also in the emotionally turbulent and highly dramatic style of the symphonies, and these two works are overflowing with brilliant ideas, invention and drama. The opening of the Eb major trio immediately sounds like Beethoven, but once again with a French accent. Ludwig would surely not have been ashamed to have had his name on this work although, as with her Overtures, she captured his élan and drama without capturing his profundity. But no matter; I’ll take Farrenc’s energy and drive any day of the week. Like Beethoven, too, she weaves in and out of neighboring harmonies with impunity; even by the three-minute mark of the first movement, we go through so many key changes that it almost makes one dizzy, and there are more yet to come.
The second Piano Trio, although ostensibly in D minor, spends a lot of its time in the major. At the 2:40 mark in the first movement, Farrenc indulges in some fancy instrumental interweaving of three disparate lines of music played simultaneously. Her musical imagination never flags, but stays up there throughout. I can’t say that none of Farrenc’s musical works are without flaw—for one thing, not all of them have been recorded, and for another, there are a few moments here and there when you feel she could have been a bit more creative—but when listening to any of her major works, you keep getting the feeling that the musical progression was inevitable, even though its twists and turns often take you by surprise…clearly the mark of a great composer. The second movement alone takes you through no less that five different variations, and in the last movement the piano slows down the tempo and breaks away from the violin and cello to play a sort of slow (but brief) fantasia, followed by another solo passage at the initial tempo, before the two strings return to weave their own variants around it.
Farrenc’s Sextet for piano and winds is one of the most mature works to be recorded, listed as her Op. 40, but beware the many pale, lackluster performances on YouTube. The only one worth hearing is the blistering rendition by a relatively young left-coast chamber group called Sonarsix, and I don’t think it’s from a commercial recording. But holy crap can they play! They perform it so brilliantly, in fact, that they make it sound like a worthy rival to the Beethoven Septet…and it is, simply bursting with ideas. The big difference is that, because Farrenc was a virtuoso pianist and piano instructor, the keyboard part is not only highly virtuosic but dominates the balance. Yet it’s not quite a piano concerto in reduction—most of the time the piano is simply providing dazzling keyboard runs and arpeggios in support of the winds—although the tension she created between the wind instruments and the piano holds your interest and is clearly crucial to the success of this piece. Farrenc lays off the piano in the opening bars of the second movement and, when it does enter, it plays entirely solo until the oboe and clarinet enter to weave their own lines around it. Once again, we get the distinct impression of her being a sort of Beethoven with a French accent; no German or Austrian would have written a second movement quite like this, full of Gallic elegance, but the ghost of Ludwig was undoubtedly smiling down on Farrenc when she penned this wonderful piece. The third movement, like so many of her movements in other works, somehow combines Gallic and Teutonic musical sensibilities in the same piece. I have no idea if Farrenc wrote music in spurts when inspired or worked long, hard hours on it as Beethoven did, but the seamless flow of musical ideas and her brilliance in knitting them together was simply awe-inspiring. I have no hesitancy in saying that with the exceptions of those three great geniuses, Berlioz, Alkan and Saint-Saëns, she was the best French composer of the 19th century. Sorry, but to my ears even César Franck and Jules Massenet pale by comparison.
There are several recordings of Farrenc’s famous Nonet, but most of them are exceptionally bland and lackluster. The one performance that grabs your attention is the superb, lively reading by the Minerva Chamber Players on a Centaur disc, paired with Brahms’ Op. 11 Serenade. The music here is somewhat less dynamic and more lyrical and expansive than the Symphonies or Piano Trios, which is probably the exact reason it appealed to so many listeners and earned her a raise at the Conservatoire, but for God’s sake, the other chamber groups need to lived up their approach! Played by the Minerva group, one immediately hears the relationship to her other chamber works although, to be honest, neither the themes nor the development are quite as strong as in the afore-mentioned works. Nonetheless, the Minerva group brings out many of the piece’s salient qualities and does so with great élan, particularly in the surprisingly inventive Scherzo, written in the minor (with a contrasting theme in the major) which sounds most like the Farrenc of the other pieces (in the last movement, she mirrors the more conventional style of the first). Well worth seeking out. By the way, this is the oldest recording surveyed here, having been made in 2009, and may well be the one that sparked the entire Farrenc revival.
In some ways, the music in the Nonet is more conventional and less startling than some of her other chamber works, yet this was the piece that attracted the most attention and the highest compliment from critics, which tells you that she figured out how to please them. There are still several harmonic shifts in this work but they’re just not as abrupt as in the symphonies and piano trios.
As for Farrenc’s works for solo piano, all that have surfaced so far are short works, no sonatas, although some may be out there waiting to be recorded. Konstanze Eichhorst, the excellent but little-known pianist of the Linos Ensemble, has recorded a few short pieces by Farrenc: the Valse Brillante, one of her Nocturnes, a fascination “operatic paraphrase” of themes from Donizetti’s Anna Bolena which is written in a much better and terser style than Ferenc Liszt’s rambling, bombastic opera paraphrases, as well as her Air Russes varié which was praised by none other than Robert Schumann in an 1836 edition of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (“So sure in outline, so logical in development…that one must fall under their [the variations’] charm”), but so far the most extensive album is this 2-CD set of her Études played by Greek-born pianist Maria Stratigou. Considering the fact that these works, like most of her music, was published by the family company, I found it amazing that there were several mistakes and discrepancies between the manuscript and the published scores as described by Stratigou in the liner notes:
Despite the successful completion of the recordings by the end of the second year, after comparing all the available editions (both historical and modern) with each other as well as with the existing manuscript scores, my research findings demonstrated a significant number of discrepancies and errors in all available sources. As a pianist and researcher my job was to make my performance decisions through a detailed analysis of the scores, and choose what I thought would be the most accurate representation of the pieces. Studying the performance guidance which Farrenc provided as written text in two works that she edited (Le Trésor des pianistes and Bernard Viguerie’s piano method) and the performance practices in the 19th century, I later re-recorded many of the Études.
Those expecting to hear études as melodically inviting as Chopin’s will be somewhat disappointed, but Farrenc does include tunes—indeed, the second of the 30 études in all the major and minor keys has a very attractive melody woven into the middle of it, and the third is a bouncy little tune that, again, sounds thoroughly Gallic while again showing echoes of Beethoven—her focus was on strengthening the hands in complex passages, not pleasing concert audiences. They thus strike a nice balance between Czerny and Chopin without overdoing the melodic content. (I generally feel that composers who spend a great deal of time concocting melodies in classical music are not very creative. Anyone can come up with catchy tunes—even I’ve done it—and wasting time writing catchy tunes takes away from the more serious content of the music at hand.) The fifth étude in this series is a perfect example of what I mean: a fast, bouncing piece in rapid 6/8 tempo with an overlay of a bouncy tune in E minor and, more interestingly, a slower, more melodic passage reminiscent of Liszt! With such a nice compromise between sheer finger exercises and attractive themes, several of the Farrenc études would make wonderful concert pieces, particularly as encores.
I will not waste the reader’s time trying to describe all 87 of these pieces, but taken as a whole they are as fascinating as most of her other work. In the first series, No. 9 in A major sounds the most Chopin-esque to me, but Farrenc avoids his saccharine style by suddenly upping the tempo, volume and intensity of the music in the middle. No. 10 in F# minor also has a bit of Chopin in it, although the continually arpeggiated bass line reminds one more of the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria—and there are a number of her rapid key changes in the middle of it. Étude No. 12 in this set contains a fugue that would not have embarrassed J.S. Bach, and No. 13 is built around a canon in C# minor, set to a “Sicilienne” rhythm (a somewhat slow, jaunty 6/8). The almost mind-bogglingly fast No. 14 in B major will have many pianists running for cover. It might also be mentioned at this point that despite its being in C# minor, most of No. 13 sounds in the major while No. 14, in the major, makes visits to the minor. Her restless musical mind never seemed to run out of ideas on how to add interest to her works. No. 18 contains a tune that sounds for all the world like a slightly more complex version of Three Blind Mice.
As Stratigou points out, Farrenc oddly began her series with the most difficult and complex pieces, then going on to exercises for intermediate pupils before ending up with the simplest of all for beginners, but the second set—Douze Études Brillantes—is still very much in virtuoso territory, and in this set Farrenc made somewhat less concessions towards melodic lines. Yes, they’re there, but often fragmented, emphasizing the technical aspects of fingering. (Small wonder that her piano pupils consistently won the highest awards at competitions…if they played anything like this, they probably swamped the others.) This second set of études also has less relaxation in the music: they’re almost consistently brisk pieces geared towards virtuosity and not much more than that.
Interestingly, the intermediary études are for the most part more melodic than the preceding set, but also much shorter; only about 10 of them run more than a minute, and then not very much beyond, but the melodies are back—just much tighter written than in the first set of 30. A good example is No. 3 in C, in which a sweet little tune is set to what one might call a “walking” bass line, all played in single notes. Many of the faster ones are also very playful in a typical French style, albeit much more complex in structure and thus more fascinating to listen to. One might characterize this style as a cross between Liszt and Auber. No. 10 in G minor sounds awfully complex tome for a medium-grade étude, but I haven’t been able to play the piano for the past 23 years, so I’m not really in a position to verify this. The easy études are shorter yet and much more playful, which was bound to keep up a young student’s interest.
Onward we go to the pieces for violin and piano! Last up on the superb disc by Gaëtane Prouvost and Laurent Cabasso is an early (Op. 20) set of variations, on a Swiss song. These are well-crafted but only occasionally remarkable; this set was obviously not written from her heart but from her sense of propriety, presenting a genteel piece of salon music designed to please the few wealthy snobs who deigned to attend soirees at the homes of famous artists like Pauline Viardot-Garcia. Hey. Beethoven wrote a lot of crap just for the money, too, you know! Sometimes you’ve got to take the “just OK” with the great. It’s very pretty but much more in the style of “musical wallpaper” for a Sunday brunch than the sonatas. Indeed, the slow opening of the first sonata contains some of the deepest and most profound music Farrenc ever wrote, and as usual, it moves into an Allegro section that sounds entirely logical, as if this is where she intended to go from the very first note. This sonata can almost stand comparison with Beethoven’s “Kreutzer,” and that’s no exaggeration.
The second sonata begins with a beautiful theme reminiscent of Beethoven at his most melodic: think of his “Spring” Sonata. Here, the jump to the faster sections is subtler and not as strong of a contrast, but the music is still very well crafted, just not quite as intense as the first sonata. This work is laid out in four movements rather than the usual three, as in the case of the first, and the second movement is a scherzo similar to those Farrenc wrote for her symphonies and the larger chamber ensembles. This is where some of her most interesting musical ideas surface, at times contrasting long-held notes by the violinist over the excited frills of the piano part.
The Clarinet Trio is available in two good recordings. The one by the three German musicians which I recommend, however, only came out in a 7-CD set in which Farrenc was finally featured alongside composers of her rank—Beethoven, Brahms, Kahn, Rihm, Zemlinsky, Cerha, Faure, d’Indy and Ries—but the performance of the Farrenc trio is available for free streaming on YouTube. If you wish to get a hard copy to play, however, I can also recommend the one on CPO by the Linos Ensemble, which is a bit slower and just misses the frisson of the Decca recording but is still an excellent performance.
The opening is another of Farrenc’s Andantes, quite lovely but not too much, and by a little over a minute in she has already jumped into the Allegro moderato section. Ottensamer, Koncz and Traxler play this in a fairly straightforward style while the Linos Ensemble introduces some rubato effects, but happily not too many to spoil the musical progression. The slow second movement is quite lovely (not necessarily a compliment!) and begins with a cello solo before the clarinet enters. The third-movement Scherzo is quite lively, and here Farrenc came up with some wonderful variations: an improvement over the first two movements. The Finale is even more interesting, not only lively but with some subtle harmonic shifts, clearly the best movement in this trio. In both its themes and the overall treatment of the instruments, this much closer to Mozart than to Beethoven—perhaps intentionally so.
But if the clarinet trio is just pretty good, the flute trio is absolutely fantastic. Perhaps she had her husband in mind when she wrote it, but the music is not only highly virtuosic but also dynamic and highly original. Interestingly, the opening motif played by the piano after the strong chord which begins it sounds remarkably like the lead-in music to Gounod’s Funeral March for a Marionette, but the music it goes into is far from being as lightweight. The piano part, in particular, is as driving as anything Beethoven ever wrote in his chamber works, and the flute part calls for a player of high expression, demanding a player closer to the level of a James Galway or Tara Helen O’Connor. Farrenc uses a sequence of falling chromatic chords in several passages in addition to her usual key shifts, and it’s fascinating to hear how deftly she intertwines the flute and cello. If there was a version of this with orchestral accompaniment, it could easily pass for a Triple Concerto.
The second movement is lovely but not very deep. This was, perhaps, the only aspect of her music that did not always resembleBeethoven: her slow movements are always impressive without being sentimental, but never deeply profound as his were…but that’s one reason why Beethoven was unique. On the other hand, the Scherzo is not only lively but hard-driving and full of rhythmic and harmonic surprises. including a sudden shift into a warm E major for the slower middle section, where the music opens up like petals on a flower. The last movement has an undercurrent of drama about it despite its quite fast tempo, again with short visits to major keys along the way.
And if you think this flute trio as it stands is powerful, you should hear it in the transcription she made of it for one “Messr. Louis Dorus” as a violin trio (possibly because he wanted one and she didn’t feel like writing one from scratch, this one being so good). The best recording I’ve heard of that incarnation is the one by Thomas Albertus Imberger (violin); David Geringer (cello) and Barbara Moser (piano) on Gramola 99225.
The Cello Sonata, chronologically the last piece I could find by Farrenc (Op. 46), is also lighter of weight than Beethoven’s five cello sonatas, but compared to anyone else’s from the 19th century it’s a gem, very much along the same lines as the Flute/Violin Trio. Once again, one marvels at Farrenc’s ability to seamlessly join what sound like very different and contrasting themes and not only make it work but make it fascinating.
None of the commercial recordings of this piece that I’ve heard did anything for me, but this faculty member performance by two little-known but excellent performers on the campus of the University of California, Davis’ music department’s recital hall is quite impressive.
After her daughter Victorine’s death in 1859 Louise Farrenc, then a quite mature 55, stopped composing despite the fact that she and Aristide lived for another 16 years. I can well understand why; besides, she left us a rich legacy of music to enjoy and appreciate. I can’t recall where I read it, but some snarky “music critic,” wishing to demean woman composers in general, once posited the question, “Where are the great symphonies, concertos and operas by woman composers?” Apparently he never heard of Farrenc, not to mention Emilie Luise Mayer, who wrote superb symphonies (and Mayer also wrote concerti, which Farrenc apparently did not), or those women composers from Ethel Smyth to Nancy Van de Vate who also wrote operas. The real question was, why should a good woman composer of earlier times BOTHER writing music in larger forms if their chances of being performed were slim or none? In her lifetime, Farrenc only heard one of her three symphonies performed—the Third—and of course she had to pay for all of it out of her own pocket: renting the hall, contracting the musicians and conductor, paying for the advertising and publicity, etc. And no one wanted to perform it afterwards, so why bother writing a fourth symphony? Nonetheless, the richness and high quality of the works surveyed here say it all: Louise Farrenc was a great composer, period. No bending over backwards to make excuses for the quality of her music. I encourage you to explore her as I did; I think you’ll find the experience highly rewarding.
—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley
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