Arloff La Femme NAXOS

La Femme – A Journey of Female Composers
Flaka Goranci (mezzo-soprano)
Dima Orsho (soprano), Zoryana Kushpler (mezzo-soprano)
Maximilian Bratt (violin), Teodora Miteva (cello), Donka Angatscheva (piano)
World Chamber Orchestra/Konstantinos Diminakis
rec. 2021/2022, Bösendorfer Klaviermanufaktur, Wiener Neustadt; Bösendorfer Salon, Vienna, Austria
NAXOS 8.551470 [76]

Sometimes you know from the very first note that you will enjoy a disc; and here the feeling lasted to the very last note. I had known of the main architect of the project: I reviewed Kosovan/Austrian mezzo-soprano Flaka Goranci’s debut disc.

Women composers have always had a raw deal. I have friends who were not aware that women even wrote music, a nasty shock showing deeply rooted ignorance. To some, it never occurs to ask: why wouldn’t they? This particularly illuminating disc sheds light on composers most of us will not have come across. Pauline Viardot, Maria Theresia von Paradis and Miriam Makeba are least unlikely to be known. (I was only aware of only five of twenty-one composers here.)

Flaka Goranci could have drawn upon a vast array of composers from, say, the twelfth-century nun and polymath Hildegard von Bingen to the brilliant contemporary Bulgarian-British Dobrinka Tabakova. Such bounty ought to celebrated, and deserves world-wide exposure. This programme, a mix of orchestral and instrumental pieces and songs, plays up composers from Central and Eastern Europe.

Let me start an overview of the programme by acknowledging the excellent, informative booklet notes. They were very helpful.

The programme begins with The borrowed dress by Suad Bushnaq, a Jordanian-Canadian composer with Bosnian, Syrian and Palestinian roots. The style of this haunting melody continues with Those Forgotten on the Banks of the Euphrates by the Syrian composer and singer Dima Orsho; the text reflects the continuing tragedy that befalls the composers’s home country.

The waltz-like Salomea by German composer Jasmin Reuter, mainly known for her film scores, is a thing of fragile beauty. There follows a traditional Ukrainian folk tune sung by Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Zoryana Kushpler.

Next comes Wiegala by Ilse Weber, a Czech-born German-speaking composer and poet. She was known for her works for Jewish children, like those whom she taught in Terezin, the infamous camp touted by the Nazi propaganda as Hitler’s gift to Jews. Weber and the children to whom she remained attached went to their deaths in Auschwitz. Ann Sofie von Otter  revived the song on her 2007 disc Therensienstadt, along with other music written in the camp.

Not only did female artists have to struggle to have their work recognised but often needed subterfuge to get it published; just think “Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell” (the Brontë sisters) or “George Sand” (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin de Francueil). At a competition sponsored by that great supporter of the arts Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the judges examined Rebecca Clarke’s viola sonata, tied initially in second place with a work by Ernest Bloch. They were unable to conceive that it could have been written by a woman; there was speculation that it was also composed by Bloch and entered under a pseudonym. That was as recently as 1919. 

Clarke entered another piece in 1921 and failed to win. Only in 1923 did she become the only female winner of the prize.

The digression is meant to preface the next piece, a cello and orchestra rrangement of the Sicilienne by Maria Theresia von Paradis. The notes say that “Mozart may have written the Piano Concerto No. 18 in B flat major for her, Haydn composed the Piano Concerto of 1770 and Salieri the Organ Concerto of 1773”. She was blind yet toured Europe, and she founded the first ever school for the blind. Her music was neglected until recently. The Sicilienne is a true gem; a palpable melancholy shows a flair for touching melodies.

The Iranian Niloufar Nourbakhsh champions through her music the struggle of the women of her country, very much in the news today. The Window celebrates the refugee community and sets the words of another woman, Forugh Farrokhzad, whose poems of protest describe the trials and secrets women feel obliged to keep to themselves.

The project’s founder, Flaka Goranci, wrote and sung here The Speech of Love. It is a powerful statement about what really matters in a relationship: reject the meaningless trappings in favour of real lived experience and emotion. It also is a fervent call for peace.

Rose, a lovely and rich melody, was composed by Countess Dora Pejačević, credited among other things with having written the first modern Croatian symphony. Rose has many similarities with the music of Schumann and Brahms in particular. It is sad to note how quickly Pejačević’s music, which found favour in her lifetime, was shelved after her death. It is being revived now, notably since the 1980s.

Israeli composer Ella Milch Sheriff, mainly known for her operas, chose the song Zeh hayofi for the disc. The text tells of the loss of a close friend, recalling the real essence of the things they enjoyed together. The song gives an impression of the tradition the composer’s music comes from.

Annamaria Kowalsky, born in Germany, has achieved international fame with her compositions and her visual art. Perpetuo for solo violin is intriguing in its relentlessly driving motion. One is sad not to hear more than its brief three minutes.

Kassia is by far the earliest author here. She was a Byzantine abbess, poet, composer and hymnographer. Remarkably, at least fifty of her hymns survived. Pelagia refers to a courtesan from Antioch. After baptism, Pelagia lived as a male monk. Her femininity was discovered only after her death, and that in turn highlights Kassia’s defiant attitude in fighting for the rights of her sex. The music is suitably redolent of ancient harmonies.

The next song brings us back to the present with a piece by Luxembourgish composer of Bulgarian origin, Albena Perovic Vratchanska. She employs the Bulgarian musical heritage in Peperuga, commissioned for this disc. It is based on an ancient text, and accompanies a time-honoured ritual held annually in Bulgaria to bring on the rains in spring, summer or whenever drought proves an issue. Its rhythms are immediately recognisable to anyone who has an interest in music from that tradition. In many ways, it is not so far removed musically from the previous piece, composed almost 1200 years earlier!

Turkish composer Nazife Güran wrote Dantel in 1941. She said that it was based on the idea of lace. Its filigree structure is mirrored in the music – just as a string of beads is composed of one bead sitting alongside the next, giving the piece a sense of timelessness and perpetuity. Güran noted in her letters how the constraints placed on her as a wife and mother circumscribed her achievements in the chosen field of music and the arts.

A clever arrangement of a traditional Macedonian folksong follows. It shows the complexity of the original and the undoubted challenge which composer Valentina Velkovska-Trajanovska faced but over which she triumphed. She gave us a forceful representation of a troubled soul seeking eternity.

The untimely death of Serbian composer Isidora Žebeljan robbed the music world of another truly original voice, which the short Sarabande amply demonstrates. She said of the piece that it contains both passion and sadness. Recent history in that corner of Europe has regrettably included more than its fair share of each, and traditional Balkan strains are especially good at representing such emotions.

A Renaissance man would be someone who has at least tried many disciplines and succeeded at several, an all-round scholar, a polymath or even a “Renaissance polymath”. That is expected to be a man but here we have Francesca Caccini. With her achievements as a composer, singer, lutenist, poet and music teacher, she can truly be called a Renaissance woman. She composed what is accepted as the first opera written by a woman – and that was when opera as a genre was in its infancy – and she was fiercely independent, clearly ahead of her time. The song Chi desia di saperis a celebration and a warning of the power of love to lift spirits and dash them. It is one of a collection of 36 she wrote. The few works of her that survive bridge musically the gap between Renaissance and Baroque.

Pauline Viardot may be more familiar to listeners than others represented on the disc. Franz Liszt declared that with her the world had finally found a genius woman composer. That is all the more surprising when you learn that she never set out to become a composer. Haï luli, her very popular love song, tells of all the emotional highs and lows that love causes.

Albanian composer Eriona Rushiti had a difficult time growing up, as did all creative spirits in the dark days of Enver Hoxha’s communist dictatorship when even listening to Gershwin could result in a jail sentence. The music is typical of that part of South-Eastern Europe, rich in harmony with a melody that sticks in the mind well after the song is over.

I have known Bésame mucho for decades but never knew a woman had written it: Consuelo Velázquez. As the notes say, “it is one of the most important songs in the history of Latin [American] music”. Yet it was Velázquez’s very first composition. She hit the ground running!

This fascinating disc ends with South African singer, songwriter, actress and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba’s probably most popular song Pata Pata, written in 1967. Makeba was a prominent advocate against apartheid. She spent almost 50 years in the USA after the South African government revoked her passport because of the international recognition she gained for Black African musicians. Pata Pata was sung in Xhosa, the language which Makeba introduced to the Western audiences along with the Zulu language. The song was the last she performed just before she suffered a fatal heart attack on stage.

This disc celebrates female composers and highlights their battle against prejudice. It should be a given that members of half of the world’s population can lead, innovate, make discoveries and create art as well, or better than, the other half. Flaka Goranci has showcased composers whom we should know better. I look forward to hearing more from her and from them. She is also the leading performer, and her stunning voice is ably and sympathetically accompanied by the World Chamber Orchestra conducted by Konstantinos Diminakis.

Goranci has outstanding collaborators. Dima Orsho sings alongside her in Arabic. Zoryana Kushpler performs the Ukrainian folk song. Violinist Maximilian Bratt, cellist Teodora Miteva and pianist Donka Angatscheva make a faultless contribution. This brilliant disc should be cherished and shared around. It shows how women are the equal of men. It comes with my highest recommendation.

Steve Arloff

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Suad Bushnaq (b. 1982)
The Borrowed Dress (arr. K. Gashi for orchestra)
Dima Orsho (b. 1975)
Those Forgotten on the Banks of the Euphrates (arr. K. Gashi for 2 voices and orchestra)
Jasmin Reuter (b. 1981)
Ой не світи місяченьку [Oh, don’t shine dear moon] (arr. Z. Kushpler for 2 voices, violin and piano)
Lise Weber (1903-1944)
Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824)
Sicilienne (arr. T. Miteva for cello and orchestra)
Niloufar Nurbakhsh (b. 1993)
The Window
Flaka Goranci (b. 1985)
The Speech of Love (arr. F. Goranci and T. Schauer for narrator, voice and orchestra)
Dora Pejačević (1885-1923)
Blumenleben [Life of flowers], Op. 19: No. 5. Rose
Ella Milch-Sheriff (b. 1954)
Zeh hayofi [That’s the beauty]Annamaria Kowalsky (b. 1991)
Perpetuo (2020 encore version)
Kassia (c. 810-865)
Pelagia (arr. T. Miteva for voice and cello)
Albena Petrovic-Vratchanska (b. 1965)
Nazife Güran (1921-1993)
Three Concert Etudes: No. 1. Dantel
Со маки сум се родила [I was born in pain] (arr. V. Velkovska-Trajanovska for voice and orchestra)
Isidora Žebeljan (1967-2020)
Sarabande (version for clarinet, violin and piano)
Francesca Caccini (1587-1641)
Il primo libro delle musiche: Chi desia di saper [Those who wish to know] (arr. K. Gostyński for voice and orchestra)
Pauline Garcia-Viardot (1821-1910)
Six mélodies et une havanaise: No. 4. Haï luli!, VWV 1106
Eriona Rushiti (b. 1971)
Consuelo Velázquez (1916-2005)
Bésame mucho (arr. T. Schauer for voice and orchestra)
Miriam Makeba (1932-2008) & Jerry Ragovoy (1930-2011)
Pata Pata (arr. T. Schauer for voice and orchestra)