Overture to Orpheus, Music Written for the Women Who Gave Wing to the Muse. Elaine Funaro, harpsichord. Centaur CRC 2517.

The current fashion is to issue CDs with musical themes that bind them together. The hazard is that the search for a common thread will combine pieces that make strange and uneven bedfellows.

Durham harpsichordist Elaine Funaro’s third CD, titled Overture to Orpheus, Music Written for the Women Who Gave Wing to the Muse, (Centaur CRC 2517) is a case in point. Covering works inspired or commissioned by women, it represents eight composers over the span of the last century. Unfortunately it is a mixed bag of the good and the below par. With all due respect, however, Funaro had a small repertory to choose from.

The earliest work is Alexander Vrooman’s Suite de Clavecin of 1921, in large parts an easily forgettable pastiche of Ravel’s homage to Couperin. By contrast, Lou Harrison’s lively Six Sonatas, written in the style of small character pieces like the Scarlatti sonatas, are probably the most interesting pieces in the collection with hints of Harrison’s interest in Native American music. The second, Allegro, makes imaginative use of the harpsichord’s distinctive sound to create bell-like effects. Another winner is Bohuslav Martinu’s Deux Impromptus, charming vignettes by one of the most unjustly neglected composers of the 20th century. The first one contains a rag rhythm section.

From the good to the annoying. Louis Andrissen’s Overture to Orpheus is probably the least appealing selection, sounding like an early study for a minimalist work. By the end of its 11+ minutes, its monotonous note progressions make a small enough statement that shouldn’t be repeated. Michael Nyman’s Tango for Tim is a heavy-handed work with none of the grace or supple rhythm of the true tango. By contrast, Albert Glinsky’s Sunbow presents a lively blend of rock music with impressionistic imagery to portray the sun’s color reflections in a waterfall and makes imaginative use of harpsichord sonorities. 

The newest work in the collection is Edwin McLean’s Sonata No.2, written for Funaro. It is a three movement work with hints of graceful Latin rhythm throughout. The two outer movements are the most appealing.

Funaro’s playing is lively and well paced, but in some places too heavy handed and in the Nyman piece the persistent hammering becomes annoying. although with the harpsichord’s inability to create blended dynamics, the problem is really with the composer, not the performer.

While there are some lovely and interesting works on this recording, it is difficult to listen to all 19 tracks in one sitting. Carefully, excerpted, the CD is a wonderful candidate for the shuffle feature on your CD player.