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French composer Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944) was at one time popular enough in the United States that there were some 200 Chaminade Clubs, a few of which survive to this day. Their motto, believe it or not: “C – Concentrated & Concerted Effort; H – Harmony of Spirit & Work; A – Artistic Ideals; M – Musical Merit Maintained; I – Inspiration; N – Notes (every kind except Promissory); A – Ardor & Aspiration; D – Devotion to Duty; E – Earnest Endeavor.” Chaminade‘s works fell notwithstanding into disrepute during the modernist repression, and even the efforts of feminist musicology have brought back only a few crowd-pleasers like the Concertino for flute. This Swedish album of substantial Chaminadeworks is thus most welcome, and the music is of extremely high quality throughout. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 11, composed around 1880. There are echoes of Fauré in the music, but it’s a challenging, distinctive piece from the opening bars, where tension is set up between two rhythmic elements and then superbly developed throughout the movement. The Mazurk suédoise (Swedish Mazurka) for piano solo is a great little example of a piece that’s something other than what it seems to be: it has the outlines of a harmless character piece but is actually subtly adventurous in its harmonies. The later Piano Trio No. 2 in A minor, Op. 34, is less daring than the earlier one; it seems to have been Chaminade‘s attempt to write a trio in emulation of Austro-German chamber music, but it is expertly formed and absorbing throughout. The multinational group of players gets the unexpected experiments lurking in the corners of Chaminade‘s music; their performances are restrained and delicate, but that’s all to the good here. Strongly recommended for any Romantic chamber music collection.

Strings

The extraordinary KMW Trio delivers a literate program of works inspired by ‘Vampire Mysteries’ author Charlaine Harris and Oscar Wilde

This is a hypnotically strange, and fascinating, CD of music by three Swedish composers. The means are ordinary, but the results at times are extraordinary, particularly in Ylva Skog’s striking Piano Trio (2010), with its long cello slides, commissioned by the KMW Trio: Annette Mannheimer, violin; Sara Wijk, cello; and Ann-Sofi Klingberg, piano. In three broadly paced, relentlessly pulsed movements of even length and dialogue—inspired, in part, by the American Vampire Mysteries author Charlaine Harris, several of whose novels Skog read “during the compositional process”—the composer makes a compelling case for repeated listening to figure out how her simple devices can be so riveting.

Britta Byström’s ten-minute miniSymphony in Yellow(2003) relates to an Oscar Wilde poem, applying an aural equivalent of yellow to passing scenes from life. Andrea Tarrodi’sAkacia(2009), another KMW commission, explores the shapes and sharp points of the thorn trees she found while vacationing on the Swedish archipelago. Each of the performers is an active Stockholm freelancer bonded to her individual task by musical passion and a sense of pride. The beautiful music they make together on this stunningly produced CD is meant equally to inspire the dreams of little girls as well as to entice piano trio lovers looking for 21st-century music written to please.

Fanfare

This appears to be the second recording by the KMW Trio, a chamber group consisting of three Scandinavian women of middle age: pianist Ann-Sofi Klingberg, violinist Annette Mannheimer, and cellist Sara Wijk. Their first disc, Future Classics, featured the music of Andrea Tarrodi, Ylva Skog, and Britta Byström (db Classics 133), but here they turn the clock back from the 21st century to the 19th in order to promote the music of Cécile Chaminade.

Chaminade, born in 1857, was extraordinarily lucky among women composers of her time. While so many others had to struggle for not only acceptance but respect, among them Amy Beach and Ethel Smyth, Chaminade, like the Swedish composer Elfrida Andrée (1841-1929), was an exception to this rule. Yet, one needs to note, the Chaminade compositions that made her name, and which audiences clamored to hear, were songs and short piano works, the kind of music that the white classical establishment deemed “feminine” enough to gain acceptance, while these superb piano trios often languished in the background.

Enter this intrepid chamber group, who have taken as much of a shine to Chaminade as pianist Joanne Polk has to Beach and Fanny Mendelssohn. And thank goodness that they have, because these performances of Chaminade’s piano trios really bristle with energy, and in fact made an extraordinarily strong case for their being part of the standard chamber literature. The first trio, written in 1881, has but one movement that is not of exceptional creativity or brilliance, and that is the Allegro final movement. Even the annotator, Paul-Christian Sjöberg, admits that the final movement, though giving “an effective twist” to the work, is “somewhat stricter” in form. No matter, however; the same may be said for many a piece by Brahms or other male composers contemporary with Chaminade, and the extraordinary first movement immediately bespeaks of a master composer. It is literally bursting with ideas, extraordinarily effective in its use of counterpoint and, even more striking, the almost agitated conversation that she sets up between the three instruments. This trio, in fact, breaks new ground for its time in moving away from a “conversation” between the three instruments, as one heard in Brahms and Mendelssohn, rather picking up on some of the musical language of Beethoven’s middle quartets. Sometimes it’s the cello, sometimes the piano, that plays a solo discourse while the other instruments merely accompany or drop silent; there are multiple chromatic harmonic shifts, usually upward, which gives the music a continually restless (and energetic) feel.  A melodic snippet in major flits in and out, almost as if whistled by a passerby; the primary feel to the movement is set by a coruscating string figure that repeats itself in the various keys through which the music passes.

The second movement, a deeply felt Andante in the relative major (BΙ), is actually built around an extension of the melodic fragment from the first movement, fleshed out and later developed in a most intriguing way. Chaminade keeps rhythmic interest up by keeping the piano playing, for the most part, a steady rhythm while the strings utilize whole and half tones quite effectively. The emotional effect on the listener is almost that of a “wave” of sound that ebbs and flows on the mind, now nudged by the piano, now allowed to pause or “break” on a rock.

Sjöberg claims that the Scherzo bears a stylistic resemblance to Mendelssohn, and there is some truth to that, but only in the quicksilver rhythm of the piano which is actually playing in double-time. Otherwise, what one hears above and around the coruscating piano part is yet another impassioned, lyrical, yet chromatically-charged melody that sounds to me much more like a scherzos of Brahms than “a Mendelssohnian image of playing fairies” (spare me!!!). I should, at this point, make some mention of the overall effect of the KMW trio. All three musicians generally elicit bright tones and sharply-etched sonorities from their instruments, which helps focus the listener on the musical progression. Not a note of the intricate interplay or counterpoint is lost on the listener, and the sharp focus of the sonics also helps in this. Given their emotional commitment to this music, the trio makes something interesting out of the “ordinary” final movement, giving it much the same energy and impetus as the first and third movements.

Pianist Klingberg then plays a four-minute Mazurk’ suédoise or, as it translates from French, a “Swedish mazurka.” Written in 1891, this was more typical of Chaminade’s core repertoire, short piano works in a Chopin-Mendelssohn manner. She gives the music more “backbone” in its performance than usual, emphasizing the unusual (again) harmonic twists, but in its short journey from start to finish it is decidedly lightweight fare—exactly what the male-dominated classical world wanted and expected of its female participants.

Happily, this recital concludes with the a minor trio from 1887. The casual listener, unaware of Chaminade’s life or the struggles and challenges she had to overcome, might be forgiven for being shocked that this was written four years before Mazurk’ suédoise, so mature, bold, and adventurous does it sound. In fact, in the first movement, Chaminade manages to work around or slightly evade the core tonality in passages for the strings that elide daringly through harmonic jumps and transpositions. Here, too, Chaminade creates a long-lined melody of exquisite originality that intrigues the ear without becoming an “ear worm,” and because this melody is so cleverly written she is able to pick it apart, using fragments of it to change both key and rhythm in the development section. I heard in this music a stronger influence of Franck than of Brahms, though in a way Chaminade fuses the two through her Gallic sensibility. This is even more of a “high romantic” trio than the one in g minor, yet again—in the development section—she channels mid-to-late-period Beethoven in her rhythmic-harmonic modulations. Indeed, Chaminade perfectly fuses French and German romanticism in this piece. It is the work of a master composer.

The slow “Lento” movement achieves a state of calm, drawing the listener in to a deep meditation in which her command of string writing is evident in every bar. Moreover, the solo piano passage in this movement, though built around a light theme, has a deeper feeling to it than her Mazurk’ suédoise, nice though it is. Sjöberg is correct in saying that this movement is “almost unequalled in French music.” In the finale, Chaminade jumps right in with dramatic, chromatic flourishes which alternate between f minor, e minor, and F major. Indeed, there is almost a Wagnerian feeling of unsettled tonality in her music that is exceptionally rare for French chamber music of her time. At times, Chaminade relies on typical scale passagework for connective tissue, but such moments are rare. Mostly, she is flying over a musical canyon without a net. This is, certainly music of exceptional creativity, and it des make you wonder how much more she could have written had she stayed with chamber music for a few more years.

Alas, we’ll never know, because what audiences wanted to hear her play were lots of little piano vignettes. After all, that’s “real” women’s music, don’t you know. A pity…but we do have this CD to prove that the sum total of Cécile Chaminade’s music was greater than what we are used to. Lynn René Bayley