Louise Farrenc, a fine early romantic-era composer, led a charmed life as a youngster. Born into a ‘high art’ family, she also had the advantage of coming into contact with dozens of other artistic families at the Sorbonne. With an impeccable cultural background and artistic bloodline, Farrenc was certainly in excellent position to learn piano and music composition. She also was trained by some of the most esteemed musical artists of the time: Antoine Reicha, Johann Hummel and Ignaz Moscheles.
Although Farrenc had to deal with restrictive views concerning acceptable female roles in life, she always considered herself first and foremost a composer of music. Her works were widely performed in Europe during her lifetime, but her current reputation is slim indeed. Her obscurity likely derives from two considerations. First, unlike Clara Schumann or Fanny Hensel, Farrenc was not aligned with a famous relative. Second, Farrenc’s music was of the Germanic tradition, and this style was not popular in 19th century France.
Of the best composers of Farrenc’s era, her music most reminds me of Beethoven’s with a dash of Chopin added into the mix. Her works display an expert sense of construction, ample variety of form and emotional content, and a fine penchant for attractive melodies. However, readers should not think that Farrenc possessed the musical inspiration of a Beethoven or Chopin. Farrenc’s musical magic is more in the range of Hummel and Reicha, which makes her music highly desirable as opposed to essential.
This is not CPO’s first Farrenc recording. The company has already issued a disc of Farrenc symphonies and another of her large-scale chamber works. Those recordings were well received, and I have no doubt that this new solo piano disc will also garner fine reviews. I should also relate that being a pianist, Farrenc’s early compositions consisted primarily of piano music, and that the works on the new disc are from her early career.
Konstanze Eickhorst has the honor of performing Farrenc’s piano music. Ms. Eickhorst is no stranger to Farrenc’s music, performing the piano parts of CPO’s previous chamber music disc mentioned above. Eickhorst currently enjoys a busy concert schedule that started with winning the Clara Haskil Competition in 1981 at the age of twenty. She has also won other piano competitions and performed with many of the most prestigious orchestras and conductors in Europe in addition to chamber music groups such as the Melos Quartet, Carmina Quartet, and the Linos Ensemble. Eickhorst has played a wide range of keyboard music from the Baroque period up to contemporary pieces. Her recordings include Bach’s Goldberg Variations for Bella Musica and Clara Schumann’s piano works on CPO.
Eickhorst programs three types of Farrenc’s piano music: works based on a basic theme with variations, character pieces and Études. Of the two variation works, the Air russe varié is the more contemplative and consists of a Preludio, Theme, eight short variations and a Finale. This expansive structure is expertly crafted by Farrenc and quite distinctive. The Preludio is a serious Moderato of a pleading and compelling nature that is followed by the basic theme that I must admit is rather simple in the manner of the Diabelli theme that Beethoven made into a marvel of variation technique. Although not at Beethoven’s exalted level, Farrenc gives us eight inventive variations. The Finale is rather special, having a first section of Bachian fugue proportion with overlapping voices and a second section of exuberance and triumph.
The other variation work, the Variations brillantes, takes its basic theme from the cavatina "Nel veder la tua costanza" from Gaetano Donizetti’s Opera "Anna Bolena". Although of equal length to the Air russe varié, there are only four variations, which does lead to greater thematic development. Further, the Variations brillantes is very much a work for public display with its virtuosic requirements and exhilarating nature.
The two character pieces on the disc, the Valse brillante and the Nocturne, were both published in the early 1860s but may well have been composed in the early years of Farrenc’s musical career. Neither piece displays the brilliant artistry of Chopin’s character pieces, but both are rewarding in their own right. The Valse brillante is true to its title and consists of a series of contrasting dance themes of a generally upbeat and vivacious nature. The Nocturne is in the style of Chopin’s works in this genre and is quite lovely and poignant.
I have left the best for last: Eickhorst’s selection of nine of the thirty Études of Opus 26. With this body of music, Farrenc shows her expertise in conveying a compendium of the piano techniques used during the first decades of the 19th Century, employing the extended ‘circle of fifths’ as her structural guide. Of course, we are not able to follow the architectural path when only given selections, but Farrenc often programmed just a few of her Opus 26 Études in piano recitals. Each of the pieces is in ABA form and ranges in length from under two minutes to over four minutes.
The Études Nos. 22 and 19 are so propulsive and concentrated that they take on a relentless quality that is compelling. No. 7 is a gorgeous and uplifting Andante, while No. 4 is thoroughly invigorating. Contemplation and melancholy pervade No. 10, and No. 11 has the relentless qualities mentioned for Nos. 22 and 19. My personal favorite is No. 12, another Bachian style fugue that clearly reveals Farrenc’s affinity for baroque form and counterpoint.
In summary, the new CPO disc of Farrenc solo piano music is a highly rewarding effort having both excellent music and performances. The recorded sound is fine, although a little thin compared to current standards of piano richness in recordings. This enjoyable disc represents great entertainment value and should appeal to piano enthusiasts and anyone wanting to travel the byways of the early romantic period.
-- Don Satz, MusicWeb International