room trios chandos

A Room of Her Own
Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
D’un matin de printemps (1917-18)
D’un soir triste (1917-18)
Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)
Piano Trio No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 11 (1880)
Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983)
Piano Trio (1916-17, rev 1978)
Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)
Piano Trio in D minor (1880)
Neave Trio
rec. 2023, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
Chandos CHAN20238 [83]

A Room of her Own is the sixth album recorded by the excellent Neave Quartet for Chandos and is in effect a sequel to their fourth, Her Voice. Another collection of trios by female composers (Farrenc, Beach and Rebecca Clarke), it was released in late 2019 and welcomed warmly by my colleagues Jonathan Woolf and Stephen Greenbank. The new release arguably makes more programming sense than its predecessor in that it offers snapshots of two discrete historical moments from pairs of composers who were all but exact contemporaries: Ethel Smyth and Cécile Chaminade’s trios both date from 1880 – they were born within a year of each other and both died in their mid-eighties in 1944. From the next generation Germaine Tailleferre and Lili Boulanger were each in their mid-twenties when they produced their pieces towards the end of the Great War; tragically Nadia Boulanger’s younger sister succumbed to intestinal tuberculosis at the age of 24, a matter of weeks after completing the orchestral version of D’un soir triste, whereas Tailleferre survived to be a nonagenarian, and was the last member of Les Six to pass away in November 1983.

I’m afraid I’ve been unable to buy into the current vogue for reviving the music of Ethel Smyth whilst simultaneously being happy to recognise her historical and sociological significance. As Frankie Perry states in her exceptional booklet note Smyth is certainly an outlier as the only non-French composer featured here and stylistically her Piano Trio in D minor is as Germanic and Brahmsian as might be imagined. But I found myself actually liking this unfamiliar work far more than absolutely anything else of hers I’ve ever encountered. Although it wears its obvious influences none too lightly, formal rigour is palpable in a first movement which more than kept my interest from first bar to last, whilst to my astonishment I found the slow movement, bearing the whimsical subtitle ‘The courage of simplicity?!’ (translated from her own rather approximate German – the bizarre punctuation is her own) to be both enchanting and memorable despite a patent lack of originality. It really helps when it is performed (and recorded) as lovingly as it is here – Mikhail Veselov’s autumnal russet -hued cello in its closing bars is sublime. The Scherzo is unexpectedly novel, an agile, puckish piano dance with identifiably Iberian, even Fallaesque stylings. Whether it fits with what’s gone before is neither here or there, it’s confident and attractive. The closing Allegro vivace is the weakest of the four movements – its opening seems a tad mannered and cumbersome, the transition to a salon-light, schmaltzy second subject is less than subtle, whilst the structure is possibly a bit too extended for the quality of its material, and although its coda is both attractive and satisfying it falls short of saving the movement. That said the Neaves lack nothing in commitment to Smyth’s cause –in any case the first three movements are certainly worth hearing and demonstrate even to naysayers like myself that even Dame Ethel had her moments.

Frankie Perry identifies several interesting parallels and contrasts between Smyth and Cécile Chaminade in terms of the reception of their music by the predictably patronising musical patriarchy of the time and these two individuals’ different responses to the attitudes they duly faced. It is salutary indeed to learn that the French composer moved from an enthusiasm for longer, more serious forms at the start of her career to the salon friendly miniatures which ironically would end up making her name and fortune, whereas Smyth followed a diametrically opposite route. Chaminade’s Piano Trio No 1 in G minor seems fluent, cogent, attractive and far less easy to place in terms of its influences than her English contemporary’s work. The opening Allegro seems harmonically adventurous for its time and place, it flows most pleasingly through a pastel landscape which conceivably suggests Fauré more than Franck although what one most clearly detects here is Chaminade’s own voice. The brief slow movement incorporates a theme which is touching without being winsome. It’s developed in attractively robust terms (the movement is marked Andante-animato) and the Neave Trio are evidently alive to its interpretative potential. This is no run-through; their dynamics and tastefully applied rubato work wonders. Brilliant piano writing stands out in an even more concise and rather droll Scherzo with lithe, pleasing shading supplied by the strings. Chaminade’s Trio culminates in a finale marked Allegro molto agitato. Again it’s hard to pin down – in harmonic terms it certainly journeys round the houses whilst to my ears its mood veers close to melancholy at certain points, although its denouement is both sparkling and abrupt. It’s hard to imagine the work being better served by different players or engineers alike.

We then jump forward a generation and a bit to 1917 when Germaine Tailleferre composed a three movement Piano Trio which was all but forgotten until she reworked it for a commission some six decades later. Frankie Perry reveals that she chose to completely rewrite its second movement as well as adding an extra fourth panel. Given the sixty-odd years which elapsed between the initial and final versions of this succinct work, the consistency of style and invention is remarkable. Tailleferre’s brooding introduction to the opening Allegro animato is most striking; the movement evolves in a somewhat unorthodox manner although it is undeniably lyrical and harmonically attractive. The reworked second movement adopts many features of the neo-classical style which dominated the French scene from the 1920s onwards; its melodies are short-winded yet cleanly expressed, its rhythmic profile clipped and abrupt, its overall impact propulsive and purposeful, yet it still fits most comfortably between Tailleferre’s original first and third movements. The latter is an alluring slow movement (albeit one marked moderato) projecting a captivating Gallic grace and concluding with a sustained, mysterious chord. The Neaves seem to revel especially in the expressive possibilities offered by the slow movements of the trios in this collection. Tailleferre’s additional finale proves to be fleet of foot, harmonically piquant and inhabits an idiom which synthesises the acerbity of Milhaud with the lyricism of Poulenc.

Lili Boulanger’s Deux pièces for piano trio open the disc; along with the motet Pie Jesu they proved to be her final compositions. Originally conceived for violin (or flute) with piano, she swiftly produced expanded versions of the pieces for trio and subsequently orchestra, although neither of these iterations are precise transcriptions. Whilst the trio versions were premiered in the year after Boulanger’s death, Frankie Perry tells us they remained in the ‘bottom drawer’ until 1975 when her sister Nadia organised the production of a fair copy which was eventually published in 2007. The Deux pièces provide listeners with a sobering, poignant juxtaposition. D’un matin de printemps is not quite full of the joys of a spring morning; the melody might seem vivacious on the surface, yet its breezy tempo suggests haste instead of joy – the Neaves invest the material with an appropriately chilly edginess. To my ears in its orchestral guise D’un matin de printemps was always one of those works which actually became more dark with increased familiarity – I’m convinced this is due to Lili Boulanger’s music itself rather than the perceptual set that settles with the knowledge of the composer’s fate. This effect seems even more pronounced in this version for piano trio. Its companion piece D’un soir triste is devastating regardless of the forces involved. The chordal, stately piano chords at its outset suggest an eerie premonition of Messiaen’s Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus, the final elegy from Quartet for the End of Time; Boulanger’s initial melodic idea is unsurprisingly pained and lachrymose. The piece gathers in intensity and depth as it proceeds, qualities which are eloquently communicated in the Neaves’ gripping, unfailingly moving account.

A Room of Her Own will only add to the flourishing reputation of this fine trio. They present fastidiously prepared accounts of (as yet) little-known trio works by a quartet of female composers. Production values are in the best Chandos tradition whilst Frankie Perry’s gracefully written booklet note is replete with interesting detail and accessible commentary. With a duration of 83 minutes, the disc is also most generously filled.

I would however like to raise one concern. I still find myself writing the phrase ‘female composers’ in this review. At what point do we stop applying these gendered designations? In this case I do so simply because the title of the disc is A Room of Her Own; the ‘femaleness’ of its protagonists seems to be its central conceit. Why? All these pieces (even Ethel Smyth’s in this case) clearly merit a place on recital programmes and compact discs on their own terms. Whilst there is undeniably much more to be done, I do sense that the lot of fine female composers both past and present is beginning to change for the better. So forgive me for wondering aloud whether continuing to draw attention to a composer’s gender in this way might unwittingly result in extending the shelf life of a patriarchal status quo hitherto linked to repertoire which is at last, belatedly beginning to crumble? I only make the point as the issue of gender in this regard seems increasingly irrelevant and referring to it repeatedly makes me feel profoundly uncomfortable; when all’s said and done good music is good music is good music.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Rob Challinor (March 2024)

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