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Hyperion Records

CDH55199 - Chaminade: Piano Music, Vol. 3
(Originally issued on CDA66846)

Recording details: November 1995
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Arthur Johnson
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: April 2006
DISCID: 3A114C16
Total duration: 72 minutes 31 seconds

'As in the previous volumes, Peter Jacobs shows himself to be fluent, clean-fingered, elegantly delicate where required, and able to invest the music with fine nuances of tone and pace―an ideal interpreter of Chaminade' (Gramophone)

Piano Music, Vol. 3
Andante  [9'11]
Allegro  [2'47]
Aubade  [1'20]

This third volume in Peter Jacobs's survey of the piano music of Cécile Chaminade contains at its heart her one Piano Sonata, a relatively early work dedicated to Moszkowski. Alongside come eight miniatures from the Album des Enfants, and a selection of the morceaux and salon pieces on which her reputation largely—if unjustly—rests.

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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.

Chaminade’s Prélude in D minor, last of a set of three Préludes, Op 84, is a brilliant, incisive piece. It rapidly spans the keyboard with waves of energetic fast triplet figuration out of which emerges a surging, passionate tune. Sonorous harped chords characterize the more songfully expressive poco moderato middle section in the tonic major. The return to the opening key and material is poetically handled, the fast triplets eddying back in mysterious pianissimo. The harped chords reappear, now in the minor, just before the end.

Rigaudon, No 6 of Chaminade’s Pièces romantiques, is termed a ‘Réduction pour piano seul’, presumably from an orchestral original. This is a gentle, courtly piece in the manner, perhaps, of Chabrier’s Pièces pittoresques. The main idea is minuet-like, but there is no well-defined trio, rather a subtle play of light and shade as the music gravitates between major and minor modes. By contrast, Les sylvains (‘The fauns’) is clearly structured around two sharply differentiated ideas and textures—the first gravely lyrical, with a gently pulsating accompaniment, mainly in low registers, and the other playful, mostly in higher regions, suggestive both of flute music and capricious acrobatics. Are these two fauns, old and young, or simply two sides of essential faun nature? The mocking glitter of the closing bars shows which has the upper hand.

Valse-ballet, also known as Chaminade’s Valse No 6, is a vivacious and whimsical piece in C major, very clearly laid out in defined sections. The G major second strain mingles a cheerful fanfare with the main tune; a more thoughtful, rather Chopinesque idea in A minor occupies the middle section, and the fanfare returns in E before the Valse’s opening music is reprised. Very different—in its syncopations and little rhythmic and motivic awkwardnesses—is Inquiétude (‘Anxiety’), the third of Chaminade’s Pièces humoristiques. The fluttering pulse of the outer sections gives way to a central episode of heavy staccato chords, quite low in the register, perhaps to be understood as pounding heartbeats. Chaminade dedicated this piece to Rudolph Ganz, the (Swiss-born) American pianist and conductor who championed French music in America.

Arabesque is an even more intricate piece. Its dance-measure is essentially decorative, but there are occasional hints of drama, and it builds to a powerful and unexpectedly virtuosic ending.

Chaminade’s third Valse brillante, in A flat, shows her economical control of form. The music grows with perfect naturalness out of an opening two-note figure, with an upward spiral of Chopinesque chromatics. A clear-cut, aspiring idea provides effective contrast. After a climax comes an E major dolce central section; its elegiac, falling tune is soon enwrapped in passionate figuration. The second idea is used to construct a powerful return to the opening music, and at the waltz’s culmination the dolce tune returns transformed, tutta forza, to provide an ardently rhetorical apotheosis.

Deft miniaturist as she was, Chaminade was never merely a purveyor of morceaux; however her only Piano Sonata is, like most of her larger-scale works, a comparatively early production, from the period when she had to make her mark in the sophisticated musical milieu of Paris. Dedicated to Moritz Moszkowski, the Sonata’s C minor tonality, and the Allegro appassionato marking of its first movement, make clear from the outset that in her enterprise Chaminade was evoking the protection of Beethoven, evident also in the opening theme which rises in powerful waves in the left hand. But a contrasting tranquillo idea is a complete surprise: it seems to unfold in a single line which soon reveals itself as the first voice in a neo-Bachian fugal invention. After combination with the first theme it leads to a vaunting, heroic figure and some robustly Brahmsian writing before the initial theme returns in the left hand and initiates a vigorous codetta. Rather than try to reconcile these rather conflicting influences Chaminade opts for drastic compression. The development, beginning with a chordal version of the fugal theme, is very short, and the recapitulation is truncated; the fugal theme is represented only by its opening phrase, the movement passing swiftly to a con fuoco conclusion.

The Andante slow movement, in A flat, begins as a beautifully melodious romantic reverie, disturbed by a fateful figure in dotted rhythm that relates to the first movement’s opening theme. The movement veers to C sharp minor for its songful second theme before building to a rhapsodic climax that combines all the ideas so far heard. The romantic melody of the opening returns, but the coda melts exquisitely away on the second theme. The virile, spirited finale is a kind of toccata, its near-perpetual motion of semiquavers, broken by sforzato left-hand jabs, reminiscent perhaps of Schumann. This motion becomes the background to a long-spanned contrasting theme, but again the composer opts for a structure more abbreviated than her premises might well support: writing of increasing bravura leads to a shortened reprise of the opening semiquaver idea, and a brusque final cadence.

In contrast to this (at least by intention) ambitious work is a selection of numbers from Chaminade’s mature collection of children’s pieces, the Album des enfants, published in two parts in 1906 and 1907. She does not write ‘down’ to younger performers; though short, and texturally and technically simpler than most of her other music, these pieces are not ‘childish’ or overtly concerned with childhood themes. The lulling melody of the C major Idylle has a bright, classical clarity, while the A minor Gavotte is one of her occasional homages to the world of the Baroque clavecinistes, with its evocation of harpsichord style and more assertive middle section. The cheeky Rondeau in F could almost be a popular music-hall song; by contrast the faintly Arabic melody of the E minor Orientale weaves an appropriately hypnotic spell, open fifths in the bass suggesting an exotic drone. The charming E major Aubade gives way to a Patrouille in G minor, a miniature whose sombre suggestions of military march and fanfare acquire a running quaver accompaniment in the left hand to intensify the effect of purposeful motion.

The most elaborate of these children’s pieces, with a full repeat of its second section, is the A major Villanelle, a delightfully mock-classical invention evoking, perhaps, the world of Watteau and the fêtes galantes. This selection concludes with the scintillating little Tarantelle in A minor, whose excitable, irrepressible motion demands bravura execution whatever the performer’s age.

The remaining four pieces in this programme show Chaminade in full concert rather than salon mode. Le passé (‘The past’) is the third of her Poèmes provençales, a darkly lyrical and emotional utterance in D flat. Almost entirely concerned with its melancholic opening subject, it has no real middle section—ethereal dolcissimo chords, almost like a chorale, seem to promise one, but lead instead to an appassionato reprise of the main idea. The piece deliquesces in a mood of sweet regret.

Sérénade espagnole was originally published in 1895 as a song under the title Chanson espagnole. It rapidly became one of Chaminade’s most popular works in that genre, and was issued in a number of arrangements by other hands (Fritz Kreisler, no less, arranged it for piano trio in 1903); Chaminade’s own solo piano version appeared in 1926. Its hints of local colour, haunting tune, and ‘Spanish’ rhythms immediately reveal the reasons for the piece’s success.

The Quatrième valse, in D flat, is a good example of Chaminade’s mastery of this particular dance genre. After a swaggering opening the blithe and attractive main tune dominates the proceedings, sometimes enveloped in trills and ornamentation. The middle section, whose subject is rather more serious and ardent, is in B minor. The modulatory passage that then leads back to the main waltz tune is subtly expressive, and the coda is Chaminade at her most flamboyant.

Flamboyant, too, is the Cortège in A major, subtitled ‘Fragment’. Every so often Chaminade produces a work which bursts the bounds of the decorum that informs most of her music, and this is one such. The swaggering bravado of this military march almost recalls the satirical heroics of Alkan’s Capriccio alla soldatesca, and when the music turns to the minor she produces another surprise by turning the march tune into a fugue subject. An extended development centred around E major allows a cadence back to the opening material, with a thunderous left-hand drum figure marked ‘Timbales’ (was this, in truth, a sketch for an orchestral piece?) just before the closing bars.

Calum MacDonald © 1996

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. 2' (CDH55198)
Chaminade: Piano Music, Vol. 2
MP3 £4.99FLAC £4.99ALAC £4.99Buy by post £5.50 CDH55198  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
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