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Hyperion Records

CDH55198 - Chaminade: Piano Music, Vol. 2
(Originally issued on CDA66706)

Recording details: November 1993
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Arthur Johnson
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: January 2006
Total duration: 70 minutes 36 seconds

'Even more attractive than its predecessor' (Gramophone)

'A treasure trove for the explorer' (BBC Music Magazine)

Piano Music, Vol. 2
Impromptu  [3'51]
Tarentelle  [4'35]
Other recommended albums
'Chaminade: Piano Music, Vol. 1' (CDH55197)
Chaminade: Piano Music, Vol. 1
MP3 £4.99FLAC £4.99ALAC £4.99Buy by post £5.50 CDH55197  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Cécile Louise Stéphanie Chaminade was born in Paris in 1857 and died in Monte Carlo in 1944. Although she came from a non-musical family she was something of a prodigy as a pianist and composer – she began writing sacred music at the age of eight. It was Bizet who advised Chaminade’s parents that she deserved a sound musical education: as she was unable to enter the Conservatoire (which did not then admit women) she studied privately with several teachers. These included Le Couppey (for piano) and Savard (for counterpoint, harmony and fugue); she also studied violin with the celebrated Belgian Martin Marsick, a pupil of Joachim, and composition with Benjamin Godard. Furthermore, she attained proficiency as a conductor, made her concert debut at the age of eighteen, toured widely, and became a well-known public figure, eventually receiving the Légion d’Honneur from the French government.

In the course of her long life Chaminade produced around 350 works including a comic opera, a ballet, a choral symphony entitled Les amazones, chamber and orchestral music, and about a hundred songs. But the area in which she excelled and was most productive was the short lyric piano piece, and many of these became very popular, bringing her considerable commercial success and fame in France, Britain and the USA. They fed a market of domestic and salon music-making which had little use for profundity or complexity of thought but responded to graceful melody, simple forms, clear textures and dextrous, gratefully written exploitation of the medium: music, with its ‘easy velocity’, often designed to sound harder to play than it really is.

As a result, for long decades Chaminade’s reputation has been that of a mere purveyor of pleasant but deeply unimportant salon music: an ephemeral figure, virtually beneath musicological notice. (Eaglefield Hull’s admirably comprehensive Dictionary of Modern Music and Musicians of 1925 ignores her very existence; it is symptomatic of the same attitude that she rates but one passing mention in Martin Cooper’s classic volume on French music from the death of Berlioz to the death of Fauré – as ‘charming’ and ‘fashionable’ – and that The New Grove takes over unaltered and unquestioned the brief and supercilious entry from the previous edition of Grove’s Dictionary.)

But with the increasing attention being focussed in recent years upon the distinct achievements of women composers, and with belated respect thus accruing to such signally gifted figures as Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Lili Boulanger, Rebecca Clarke and Ruth Crawford, the reputation of Chaminade almost certainly calls out for upward revision. After all, as Norman Demuth perceptively remarks in his study of French piano music – which, if he cannot quite bring himself to intrude her into his main narrative, at least gives Chaminade a little ‘interlude’ chapter to herself – she was ‘nearly a genius in that she knew exactly what, and how, to write for pianists of moderate ability … we wish every writer for the piano had her innate gifts and could be equally musicianly in their own ways’. Demuth also stresses the fact that Chaminade’s music gracefully complements that of Fauré: while she may lack (or scruple to attempt) the latter’s innate profundity, she often matches him in elegance, melodic beauty and lyrical cantabile. It is hardly a criticism that she is usually easier to play.

What any substantial sampling of her pieces makes clear, however, is that she spanned a wider range than the conventional picture of a ‘salon composer’ leads us to expect. Romantic attitudes and keyboard delicacy, yes – but also a wit that occasionally approaches irony, a robust rhythmic energy, and a melancholic vein that sometimes turns dark indeed. Maybe it does her most justice to appraise Chaminade as a direct forerunner of Poulenc, a composer who mates the elegant and the naive with a very sophisticated technique, and conducts a quintessentially French exploration of that area where sentiment shades over into profound emotion.

Certainly the present selection opens with the salon composer to the fore in Arlequine, a crisp and scintillating exercise in the almost obligatory ‘Pierrot piece’ of Chaminade’s day – tuneful and inventive, with plenty of twinkly, dextrous work for the right hand. But a female Harlequin? Perhaps ‘feminine caprice’ (Chaminade inhabited an age with no horror of sexual stereotyping) is suggested by the abrupt, flouncing cadences.

Fauré’s Romances sans paroles were probably her model in the early, lyrical Pièce romantique, where the elegant melody is mainly carried by the left hand against lapping off-beat quavers in the right. But in the much later Chanson bretonne, which actually belongs to the set of Romances sans paroles, Op 76, the technique is bolder and starker, with a crowing, folk-like tune (of the type that, a generation later, might have interested Koechlin or Emmanuel) made the basis of a vigorous dance-like piece: through-composed, with no separate middle-section apart from a suggestion of ‘exotic’ chromaticism, and rising to a resounding conclusion.

The deliciously lilting Divertissement of 1901 is again the salon composer at her best, polish and elegance creating sheer enjoyment from the merest wisp of an idea, embellishing a bright D major tonality. By contrast the B major Consolation, the fifth of the set of Op 87 Pièces humoristiques, is something more serious, testifying to this composer’s intelligent absorption of the manners, and something of the matter, of great elder contemporaries. The undulating left-hand pattern and the lapping right-hand notes hint at a barcarolle rhythm which is intensified in the gorgeously Fauréan middle section, recalled in the piece’s closing bars. Liszt, rather than Fauré is, however, the presiding spirit here, nowhere more so than in the glittering little transition back to the main idea.

The E major Passacaille, as Op 130 a comparatively late work, makes an interesting comparison with the very early Chaconne included in volume 1 of this series. In fact even less than that piece is this a strict study in ground-bass variations, as its title might imply – though the presence of a ground is occasionally hinted at. Instead it is a sophisticated exercise in neo-Baroque evocation, recalling the virtuosity of the great clavecinistes of the age of Rameau and Couperin, and going back to the origins of the passacaille, which was a vigorous triple-time dance before it ever became a showcase for contrapuntal learning.

Even later is the Op 165 Nocturne, published in 1925, and it bespeaks a composer who has attained a serene maturity without relinquishing one whit of her elegance. The poised and limpid outer sections perhaps inevitably awake echoes of Fauré. But now Chaminade is able to approach the profundity of the older composer’s last nocturnes, finding real depth of emotion in the più animato middle section. Clarity and calm are restored in the reprise, and the piece expires in a rippling coda.

The Scherzo-valse is an altogether lighter affair, capricious in its moods but merely meant to entertain; while Sous bois is another of the Op 87 Pièces humoristiques that proves more lyrical than humorous. No French composer for the piano could be unaware, in using this title, of the seductive Sous bois of Chabrier in his epoch-making Pièces pittoresques (the same set of course, contains the ‘Scherzo-valse’ of French piano literature). But Chaminade’s piece relates more to her own characteristic procedures. Compare the opening with that of the early Pièce romantique. Gesture and texture are almost the same, but a much more extended movement develops from these very similar premises: a melodious intermezzo whose central span is enriched by what seems like the distant pealing of bells.

With the Étude symphonique in B flat we are apparently on altogether more serious ground – as befits a piece dedicated to Paderewski, no less. But though the music, unfolding at first as a calm andante, gathers force through the elaborate motion of its inner parts, and then plunges into an allegro appassionato which intermingles a measure of motivic development along with turbulent bravura display, there is no real symphonic drama here, and the cat-like contentment of the final bars suggests it was really all a game.

We are nearer to reality in the short Élégie in D flat, third in a set of Feuillets d’album published in 1910. On one level this is yet another example of the ‘song without words’ genre. But the harmony tends to wander into shadowed areas, discreet canonic imitation intensifies feeling, and some of the later developments engender an unexpected measure of passion.

The superb D major Gigue, Op 43, dedicated to the composer and conductor Camille Chevillard is one of Chaminade’s frequent studies in semi-archaic dance rhythm, and one of the more brilliant. Though the general impression is ‘mock baroque’, carried through with joyful velocity, the piece is remarkable for its inventive and enlivening use of cross-rhythms, and for a keyboard style whose solidity and energy suggest Brahms in his bravura moods.

When she required it, Chaminade could certainly summon up the grand manner, and nowhere to greater effect than in the most extended work on this disc, Au pays dévasté. Here there is no thought of entertainment. Published in 1919, this ‘devastated landscape’ is unmistakably a war elegy such as we find in some of Debussy’s last piano music, though its bleak and deeply felt G minor lamentation is couched in an idiom more Romantic than Impressionist. Superbly constructed, and lingering long in the memory, this powerful work deserves to be much better known.

Landscape of a very different kind features in the delicate F major Pastorale, published ten years before the Great War. This is really another clavecin-style piece, but one of such formal polish that – not only in the blithe and lyrically decorated tranquillo outer sections, but even more in the curious pathos of the central span (unusually for Chaminade in the tonic minor) – it seems a not unworthy forerunner of certain movements in Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin.

Libellules are dragonflies, and Chaminade’s relatively early portrayal of them is one of the deft little genre pieces for which she had exactly the right touch: a miniature toccata almost entirely spun out of trills and tremulous, fluttering, buzzing semiquaver figurations. Another genre at which she excelled was the waltz. The Op 119 Valse tendre, published in 1906, is a example of one of her flamboyant concert waltzes, the tenderness of its title less evident in the swirling ballroom of the F major outer sections as in the B flat trio (though even here a brief D minor interruption hints, perhaps, at the rebuff of an importunate rival).

Key colour was obviously of importance to Chaminade. Is it significant that Tristesse is in C sharp minor, given that the plangent and sonorous slow music with which it begins suggests she may have been listening hard to some Russian composers – perhaps especially Rachmaninov? If she was thinking of his famous Prelude in the same key, she certainly avoids direct comparisons by constructing her piece as an alternation of slow and fast music, the latter element a precise, toccata-like idea which soon gets caught up in the prevailing gusts of emotion.

The Impromptu and Tarentelle both belong to the Op 35 set of Études de concert that includes the famous Automne (volume 1). The Impromptu lives up to its name, beginning in lyrical style not unlike the Op 87 Consolation, but with capricious bits of decoration built into its smooth main melody. It arrives at a more virtuosic and improvisatory central section characterized by sudden washes of keyboard colour and abrupt changes of subject, and, though the opening tune returns, these more wayward elements reassert themselves and carry the piece to a flying (volante) conclusion. The Tarentelle, a natural coda to this recital, is an extended bravura study in a pulsing 6/8 rhythm. Its ceaseless quaver motion carries the music through many distant modulations and several dramatic episodes to a barnstorming coda that would win well deserved applause from any aspiring concert performer.

Calum MacDonald © 1994

Other albums in this series
'Chaminade: Piano Music, Vol. 1' (CDH55197)
Chaminade: Piano Music, Vol. 1
MP3 £4.99FLAC £4.99ALAC £4.99Buy by post £5.50 CDH55197  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
'Chaminade: Piano Music, Vol. 3' (CDH55199)
Chaminade: Piano Music, Vol. 3
MP3 £4.99FLAC £4.99ALAC £4.99Buy by post £5.50 CDH55199  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
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