In the month of International Women’s Day, I am happy to say that by chance rather than design, I have ended up with three great recordings to review, as well as a range of concert listings, that feature no fewer than 14 women composers, four women conductors and ten women performers. This shouldn’t be unusual, yet it still us – but it’s a sign of some progress that I haven’t explicitly gone looking for this. Credit should also go to the three recordings’ shared record company, First Hand Records, for supporting such a diverse range of music composed and performed by women.
Vision | Unsung Heroine – The Telling (First Hand Records FHR123). Late last year, The Telling released a new album, partly in response to the very sad and sudden loss of singer Ariane Prüssner earlier that year. The album consists of two soundtracks to ‘concertplays’, something the group have become so well known for. Vision is the imagined testimony of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), and Unsung Heroine charts the imagined life and love of troubadour Beatriz de Dia, who was possibly born in the early 1140s and died around 1212.
You may have caught both of these concertplays over the years in Brighton, as the other lead singer and founder of The Telling, Clare Norburn, was also founder and co-director for many years of Brighton Early Music Festival. The music on this recording consists of soundtracks for film versions of the plays made in 2020 following the first lockdown. Both soundtracks are testament to the chemistry of Claire Norburn’s souring soprano and Ariane Prüssner’s rich, deep mezzo-soprano, so passionately expressive when combined. In Vision, they explore the beauty but also the pain of Hildegard’s often shocking visions. There are moments of ecstasy, such as when Norburn’s solo line bursts forth above the simple harp accompaniment (Jean Kelly on medieval harp here) in Ave generosa, or when Prüssner’s rich tones circle and wind passionately in Columba aspexit.
In Unsung Heroine, we enter the world of the troubadour, with a whole range of songs drawing on Beatrix de Dia’s poetry, some with existing vocal lines, some borrowed from other songs of the time. There’s lots of forbidden love and jealousy here, as well as the distress of betrayal, the latter evocatively expressed by Norburn’s rise to stratospheric heights in Estat ai en greu cossirier (‘I have been in a state of great distress’). Prüssner on the other hand gives us the passion of two lovers and a jealous husband, and a love that can never be, in Kalenda mia (‘May Day’), here accompanied by harp (Joy Smith) and the medieval bowed string instrument, the vielle (Giles Lewin). This disc is a wonderful testament to these two rich explorations of contrasting medieval music, but more importantly to the deep musical partnership between two exceptional singers, one now sadly lost to us.
The Future is Female, Vol. 1 – Sarah Cahill (First Hand Records FHR131). American pianist Sarah Cahill has released the first volume of a three volume series, The Future is Female, aiming to celebrate women composers right from the 17th century through to the present day. In the first volume, loosely themed In Nature, the ten composers hail from across the globe, and there are a number of premiere recordings here. The works are presented chronologically, so we begin with a graceful and expressive Keyboard Sonata from Anna Bon (1739/40-after 1767).
Born in Venice, she composed for Princess Wilhelmine of Prussia in Bayreuth, then later sang in Haydn’s ensemble at the court of Esterházy. Sadly, but not untypically, all record of her disappears after her marriage to an Italian singer. Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s (1805-1847) story is not dissimilar – despite being a child prodigy alongside her brother Felix, their father discouraged any ambition for Fanny as a composer, and once married, although she continued to compose in private, it was only after her death that her work began to be published. Here, Cahill plays two of her Vier Lieder, the rippling and poignantly expressive No. 1, with its turbulent, swirling left hand, and the gently throbbing No. 3, Cahill delivering the yearning melody with great lyricism here.
Space won’t allow for discussion of all the pieces here, so I must focus on highlights, such as the turbulent waves around a constant chugging rhythm in Venezuelan composer Teresa Carreño’s (1853-1917) Un rêve en mer, or the brightly evocative bird song over dark chords in Fannie Dillon’s (1881-1947) Birds at Dawn. Agi Jambor’s (1909-1997) Piano Sonata: To the Victims of Auschwitz is unsurprisingly dark, with hammering repeated low octaves and nagging repetition, urgent driving rhythms, and then ghostly pianissimo tinkles at the top of the keyboard and a final deathly quiet chord to finish.
Deirdre Gribbin (b.1967) explores the dark side of her adopted home of London in Unseen, with insistent, shaking urgency and dark, fearful undertones, before a moment of almost motionless calm. This is an impressive collection, with Cahill effortlessly traversing a phenomenal range of styles, even contributing her voice reciting a poem by Ruth Crawford Seeger in Eve Beglarian’s (b.1958) Fireside. Her exemplary performances here also serve to celebrate the variety of music composed by women over centuries excluded from the classical ‘canon’, and the next volume is eagerly awaited.
Cabinet of Wonders, Volume 2 – Kinga Ujszászi & Tom Foster (First Hand Records FHR121). I very much enjoyed the first volume of violinist Kinga Ujszászi and harpsichordist Tom Foster’s exploration of the riches of an amazing archive from the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Cabinet of Wonders, and now they’re back with another volume of delights.
The archive has miraculously survived all that time in Dresden, and is known as Schrank II after the cabinet in which it was stored. This volume presents us with music by Martino Bitti (1655/56-1743), Henricus Albicastro (c.1660-1730), Carlo Fiorelli (c.1673-unknown), and two works of uncertain origin, but possibly attributable to Girolamo Laurenti (1678-1751) and Antonio Montanari (1676-1737). I have to confess only the last of these names was at all familiar to me, but there is some delightful and inventive music on offer here.
Bitti’s Dresden Sonatas (of which three are performed here) have delicate grace and lively, bouncy faster movements. There are harmonically relatively conventional, but Bitti explores the higher register of the violin to great effect in the second Allegro of the Sonata No. 4. There are some slightly more interesting harmonic shifts in No. 1’s middle movement, which dances along nicely, and there is great rapid interplay between violin and harpsichord, a 10th apart, in the opening movement. No.5’s final Gigue is lively, with the harpsichord trilling like a strumming guitar.
Albicastro’s offering has a mournfully lyrical opening, as well as rapid figuration and imitation between the instruments in the middle movement. The Laurenti is perhaps the most overtly virtuosic for the violin, but it is the Montanari that stands out for me, with its sliding chromatic lines, frequent tempo changes, and delicate joint figurations from the two instruments.
Ujszászi’s virtuosity is without doubt, but she is also alive to the more lyrical and expressive moments, and brings a graceful lightness to even the more conventional passages. There is clear unanimity between Ujszászi and Foster throughout, whether when imitating one another, or when in rapid runs together as in the Bitti. Given there are around 1,750 works in Schrank II, I think we can confidently expect more volumes from these two talented players.
The Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Joanna MacGregor present Silent Classics at Brighton Dome, with Neil Brand (pianist, film historian & composer), with live music performed to the Buster Keaton classic One Week, and Oliver Twist, starring Jackie Coogan & Lon Chaney (2.45pm, Sunday, March 6). They return later in the month for Elgar, Mozart and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, with Joanna MacGregor now on the piano, and Sian Edwards conducting (2.45, Sunday, March 27). For tickets, CLICK HERE
The London Philharmonic Orchestra performs Williams, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninov‘s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with Martin James Bartlett (piano), conducted by Holly Mathieson (7.30pm, Saturday, March 12 at Brighton Dome; 3pm, Sunday, March 13 at Congress Theatre, Eastbourne).
The Worthing Symphony Orchestra performs Mainly Mozart, including the Concerto for flute and harp (with soloists Monica McCarron & Elizabeth Green), the Piano Concerto No. 6 with Jeneba Kanneh-Mason (piano) and Elgar & Haydn also on the programme (2.45pm, Sunday, March 13, Assembly Hall, Worthing). For tickets, CLICK HERE
Brighton Early Music Festival celebrates Early Music Day with a concert of Renaissance Music on a Grand Scale, including Brumel’s Earthquake Mass, and music by Robert Carver, performed by the BREMF Consort of Voices and members of the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, conducted by Deborah Roberts (7.30pm, Sunday, March 20, St Martin’s Church, Brighton). For tickets, CLICK HERE
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