future female first hand

The Future is Female, Vol. 3, ‘At Play’
Sarah Cahill (piano)
rec. 15-28 August, 2021, St.Stephen’s Church, Belvedere, USA
First Hand Records FHR133 [79]

This is the third and last volume of pianist Sarah Cahill’s series aimed at promoting the music of female composers. Of the composers whom she present here, with widely different backgrounds, five are still active. (I had only known of two of the nine.) These pieces, I believe, will thrill audiences everywhere. Before I begin the review, I wish to acknowledge my debt to Sarah Cahill’s booklet notes.

The prodigiously talented Hélène de Montgeroult was well ahead of her time. She made a highly significant contribution to the teaching of the piano. Her Cours complet l’enseignemet du forte-piano, first published probably in 1816, contains over a thousand pieces, among them 114 etudes. She also wrote three sets of three piano sonatas, and she set in motion a revival of Bach’s music many years before Mendelssohn did. The three-movement piano sonata on this programme begins with an Allegro spiritoso movement. Its driving main theme is reminiscent of Beethoven, though with a whiff of Spain in its opening notes, which gives way to a gentler beautiful tune before the main theme reappears. The Adagio non troppo middle movement is a simply stated, lovely tune that unfolds over an all-to-brief four and a half minutes. The Presto finale, back to the spirited nature of the opening movement, is harmonically interesting, with a good deal of exploration. It makes for a satisfying conclusion to a very enjoyable work.

One puzzles over the vagaries of musical fashion. Cécile Chaminade was so highly thought of and admired that Chaminade Clubs were formed across the USA after her extensive tours there. The Thème varié on this programme, one of her around 200 works for piano, is a good example of the riches to be found in her music. To quote Sarah Cahill: Chaminade’s popularity waned in the mid-20th century (her long life encompassed musicians from Saint-Saëns to Duke Ellington (!)) because fashion dictated that she was ‘too regressively romantic’ and either ‘too feminine’ or ‘too masculine’. Thank goodness we now embrace diversity. This delightful piece might play in your head on an endless loop until another takes its place. The wealth of material in the five-minute span is a tribute to Chaminade’s ability for harmonic invention and variety.

The music of Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz, now one of the best-known students of Nadia Boulanger, is available in many recordings. Her piano compositions include two concertos and a good number of solo pieces, including this fine Scherzo. It is suggestive of a nursery rhyme with variations, and delivers plenty of interest with panache.

While Bacewicz had to live through the second world war, Chen Yi had the cultural revolution in China to contend with. Sent off to do manual labour in the countryside, she had to interrupt her piano studies. At least, she heard many folk songs there, which she later incorporated into her compositions. That includes the fascinating Guessing, a powerhouse of pulsating rhythms which demands an immediate rehearing.

The music of the brilliantly innovative Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh has echoes of those whom she admires and advocates, such as Messiaen, Cage and Schoenberg. In the simply entitled Music for Piano, she stretches ‘a glass-bead necklace tautly across the strings between a C sharp in the bass up to a high G sharp in the treble register’. This suggests the traditional Azerbaijani stringed instrument, the tar, a long-necked plucked lute. The effect is fascinating, with a unique and magical sound. The pianist can play and rearrange the three main sections at will, so the piece may sound different at each performance.

Next, the first première recording on the disc. Sarah Cahill commissioned Pauline Oliveros, for whom this was her first ‘conventionally notated composition since the 1960s’. The title, Quintuplets Play Pen, indicates the inspiration: the fingers complete a mathematical formula, and that results in yet another magical showcase of pianistic brilliance.

London-born Hannah Kendall’s On the Chequer’d Field Array’d found its inspiration on the chessboard. The piece depicts the three stages: opening, middlegame and endgame. The notes explain the three sections in detail, with quotes from Albert Einstein, from French artist and chess master Marcel Duchamp, and from Dawid Janowski, a professional chess player born in a Jewish-Polish family and settled in France. (Several openings variations are named after Janowski.) I do not play chess, so I likely missed a level of meaning that might have enhanced my pleasure. Even so, this is an absorbing work which requires close attention.

Iranian-born Aida Shirazi uses in her Albumblatt unusual techniques to have the piano deliver more than a conventional sound: scratching the keys, muting, strumming, and so on. This is another quite different work that intrigues throughout its seven minutes.

The last piece on this fantastic disc, and another première, is Piano Poems by Regina Harris Baiocchi. She was a co-founder of the Haiku Festival, designed to inspire children to write poetry and increase their literacy. Each of the four movements has a poem or haiku as inspiration, including one of her own in the third movement. Simplicity coexists with more complex ideas to produce a really involving work.

Sarah Cahill has presented an impressively broad selection of pieces. She is a powerful advocate for the cause of women who write music. She is also an indisputably great pianist. Her playing illuminates each work, and shows it off in best possible light. It is a pity that this is the last volume. In all likelihood, the series has opened the eyes (and ears) of many listeners whose knowledge of women composers is as poor as mine, though not due to a lack of interest on my part. Should Sarah Cahill at a later date want to resume her exploration, her only problem would be what to select from a vast list of possibilities.

Steve Arloff

Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836)
Piano Sonata No.9 in F sharp minor, Op.5 No.3 (publ.1811)
Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)
Thème varié, Op.98 (1895)
Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969)
Scherzo (1934)
Chen Yi (b. 1953)
Guessing (1989)²
Franghiz Ali Zadeh (b. 1947)
Music for Piano (1989/1997)
Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016)
Quintuplets Play Pen: Homage to Ruth Crawford (2001)¹
Hannah Kendall (b. 1984)
On the Chequer’d Field Array’d (2013)
Aida Shirazi (b. 1987)
Albumblatt (2017)²
Regina Harris Baiocchi (b. 1956)
Piano Poems (2020)¹
¹ Première recording
² Première commercial recording

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