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Chamber Music, Orchestral Music Media Review



Women in the Spotlight on Recent CDs

September 3, 2021 - Easthampton, MA:


It's a Girl!, Amy Marcy Beach (1867-1944), Piano Trio in A minor, Mélanie Hélène Bonis (1858-1937), Soir – Matin for Piano Trio, Louise Farrenc (1804-1875), Trio for Flute (here, violin), 'Cello, and Piano in E minor, Sonia Eckhardt-Gramatté (1899-1974), "Ein wenig Musik," Julia Frances Smith (1905-1989), Trio Cornwall; Thomas Albertus Irnberger, violin, David Geringas, 'cello, Barbara Moser, piano; Gramola 99225, © 2121 , TT 62:12, $17.00 via Presto Classical;[Composers and works are in alphabetical, not performance order, which is chronological.]

American Discoveries, Priscilla Alden Beach (1902-1970), City Trees (1996), Linda Robbins Coleman (b. 1954), For A Beautiful Land (1976), Alexandra Pierce (b. 1934), Behemoth, in five short movements; Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra, Reuben Blundell, conductor; New Focus Recordings FCR 286, © 2121. TT 30:23, $15.29 via Naxos Direct. [Composers are in alphabetical and performance order, which is chronological, but the works themselves are not: the Pierce dates from 1976, and the Coleman from 1996.]

The second of these two CDs was sent to CVNC; I had just purchased the first, so I suggested covering them in a duo review as I did in August. They mesh and sequence very well, and there is a fairly wide variety in the music: It's a Girl! is mostly 19th and very early 20th century; American Discoveries is entirely 20th, with a modern work to conclude. The performances on It's a Girl! blew me away when I first listened to them, and the feeling remained when I re-listened to begin writing this review. Two of its composers (Amy Marcy Beach and Julia Frances Smith) are American. The performances on American Discoveries are also outstanding.

The suppression that 19th century women composers suffered throughout their lives from both their parents and their spouses is unimaginable. This was especially true for Amy Beach, as documented in Moser's excellent notes in the accompanying booklet of It's a Girl!. However, Beach and her fellow women composers all surmounted oppression to have successful careers and leave lasting legacies. Eckhardt-Gramatté and Smith in particular bounced around all over the Western world through their careers.

The composers of the 2nd CD have had less stressful lives, because there were some changes in attitudes towards women as the 20th century progressed. Priscilla Alden Beach is a descendant of a passenger on the Mayflower, but grew up in central NY, while Linda Robbins Coleman, a pianist and writer as well as a composer, grew up in Iowan lands that were only settled in the second half of the 19th century. Alexandra Pierce was raised in Philadelphia, where the Edwin A. Fleischer Collection of Orchestral Music also happens to reside. Its Free Library, housing 22,000+ and growing scores of unpublished music, the world’s largest such archive, was Blundell's source for the notes in the CD's accompanying booklet. Blundell draws much of what he has his ensembles perform and record from this archive, so these are all world premieres, making this CD a particularly important release. The CD's shortchanged length is the result of the pandemic. Two more scores will be executed in a future release, which will likely be augmented with yet others.

The music on this CD picks up, in a way, where that of the It's a Girl! left off, but with orchestral rather than chamber music, played by the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra. Beach's City Trees is very much late Romantic in atmosphere. The 20-years older Behemoth, however, feels much more modern (though not at all dissonant) than Coleman's For a Beautiful Land, although it is different and somewhat adventuresome.

The Lansdowne Orchestra deserves a few words of introduction. Founded in 1946 by the First Presbyterian Church of Lansdown, MD, The orchestra is a community one, much like the Chapel Hill Philharmonia; both are composed primarily of professionally trained musicians and very advanced amateurs. Blundell is doing wonderful things (more below) with the organization, though he lives in Manhattan and commutes. Organizations such as this are very important for the preservation of classical music, now and in the future. Perhaps this review will inspire more exchanges of ideas, and readers to support such efforts wherever they are?

Blundell has also produced a set of three CDs, entitled American Romantics (likewise sold by Naxos Direct), that also use scores from the Fleischer Collection and are recorded on the same NYC-based label. I also happen to have other recordings by another musician on the same label, a ’cellist, with whom I reconnected a few weeks ago when he came with two of his colleagues to record a Schubert trio on period instruments in the Frederick Collection. The works on those are also world premiere performances and recordings, but Volumes I & II are with a NYC ten-member string group, the Gowanus Arts Ensemble (which takes its name from the Arts building in Brooklyn where the recording studio is based). They are also well worth exploring; Blundell has another CD in that series planned as well. My primary quibble with these products is that they do not print track or total timings; this makes playing them on the air difficult for DJs.