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Louise Farrenc: Etudes & Variations / Joanne Polk

Release Date: 02/07/2020
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30133
Composer:  Louise Farrenc ,  Jeanne-Louise Farrenc Performer:  Joanne Polk Number of Discs: 1

French pianist and composer Louise Farrenc commanded an important presence in the musical life of 19th century France. Joanne Polk’s newest album on the Steinway & Sons label includes selections from Farrenc’s Op. 26 collection of etudes and 3 sets of variations.

R E V I E W S:

"The music of Louise Farrenc, professor of piano at the Paris Conservatory for three decades after 1842, has been taped before, but never quite so well as in Joanne Polk’s sample of her solo piano music..."

-- New York Times [Best Classical Music of 2020]

Here’s another winner of a recording from Steinway and Sons. As we have learned to expect, the recorded sound is superb.

Louise Farrenc
Read more (1804-1875), especially for someone who today merits not even the proverbial asterisk in most music guidebooks, had an amazing career. Judging from this release, Farrenc’s music is firmly in the mid-19th-century Romantic virtuoso-piano tradition of Liszt and Chopin, even to the extent of including crowd-pleasing paraphrases of (or, variations upon) opera themes or arias by Bellini (Norma) and Meyerbeer (Les Huguenots).

All of which pianist Joanne Polk presents with facility, fluidity, dispatch, and élan. To get a French word in there. (And also, with joie de vivre.) The Les Huguenots piece is a corker: Imagine if Franz Liszt had gone to town on Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” (Oops; perhaps Liszt actually did that. Dunno. Long ago, I decided that FL was, for the most part, not my cup of tea; so I might have a bit of a blind spot there.)

Ferranc studied theory and composition with Anton Reicha, one of Berlioz’ teachers. She became the first female professor of piano the Paris Conservatory in 1842. Her Thirty Etudes were adopted as required repertory for piano students there in 1845. Her published compositional output included chamber music as well as three symphonies, all of which were performed...

The first three tracks are variations; the first upon a Russian song; the second upon the famous aria from Bellini’s Norma; and the third from Meyerbeer’s fantastically successful opera Les Huguenots (the first opera ever to have been presented 1,000 times at the Paris Opéra). What follows the variation pieces on the CD is a selection from Farrenc’s two volumes encompassing 30 études.

Most highly recommended, especially for piano mavens or for piano students.

-- John Marks, The Tannhäuser Gate

This brilliant composer and alleged supreme French pianist, Louise Farrenc, lived between 1804 and 1875. Only on occasion does one hear her works, piano pieces, overtures, symphonies, chamber music, etc., and then, mostly on the radio. I have collected her recordings for years — there are not that many in reality — but recordings have begun to see daylight more over the past 15 or so years, generally on labels that wouldn't be considered major, i.e. CPO, Centaur, Pentatone, Paladino, ASV, FSM, and Brilliant, to name some. She was born into a life span that produced among the greatest composers the world has ever known so it stands to reason that, being involved in that culture, fed her musical imagination. I think she did superbly well especially based on a new Steinway & Sons CD [30133] offering a hint over 70 minutes in duration. Frankly, I was overwhelmed by the pianism of Joanne Polk, the pianist, her magnificent Steinway concert grand, and the acoustics of the program — and the music.

What is on this disc that I have not found on any other are Etudes, Op. 26, Books I and II, but not complete (how I wish they were complete). The album is entitled Etudes and Variations for Solo Piano, and so far, I would rate this one of the finest piano discs presented this year of 2020. Other works include a Russian Air and Variations, a Cavatine from the Opera Norma, Souvenir of the Huguenots with 15 Etudes completing the album. All of it eminently listenable, enjoyable, and stunningly surprising for the quality of the writing. Miss Farrenc must have been a formidable pianist in her day!

Joanne Polk's work has been presented on disc before if you think you have heard her name. On the Steinway & Sons label [30037], she recorded the music of Cecile Chaminade in a CD entitled The Flatterer, and for Arabesque, she recorded the piano works of Amy (Mrs. H. H. A.) Beach, Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, Gershwin/Earl Wild and the symphonic works can be found on Naxos. Her interests seem to be in promoting mostly the work of female composers who are largely overlooked in the pantheon of composers. She is to be greatly credited for that.

This new Steinway & Sons disc I would recommend as a must-have for music/piano lovers.

-- The Classical Music Guide

The name Louise Farrenc is practically unknown today, but during her lifetime, she was a respected composer and pedagogue at a time when the professional artistic world was very much male dominated. Born in Paris in 1804, she was an almost exact contemporary of the novelist George Sand. Like Sand – and also Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn – she was forced to overcome societal biases of the time, but ultimately enjoyed a long and successful career. Her compositions include symphonies, overtures, chamber, choral and vocal music, and a great many pieces for solo piano. These latter are well represented on this Steinway & Sons recording featuring American pianist Joanne Polk. The first three tracks on the disc are sets of variations; the first on a Russian song; the second on an aria from Bellini’s Norma; and the third, the Lutheran chorale Ein Feste Burg used in Meyerbeer’s successful opera Les Huguenots. The music is elegant and well crafted, with the original themes creatively varied. Throughout, Polk demonstrates a real affinity for the music, approaching it with considerable fluidity and élan. The two sets of Etudes Op.26 making up the remainder of the disc were so highly regarded that they were ultimately adopted by the Conservatoire as required repertoire. There is much to appreciate in these musical gems – do I hear echoes of Mendelssohn and even Chopin? Many of them pose considerable technical challenges that surely only advanced pupils could have handled. Despite its obscurity, Farrenc’s music should never be dismissed as secondary. There is evidence of fine creativity, matched here by an equally fine performance. Kudos to Joanne Polk and to Steinway & Sons for helping bring to light repertoire that might otherwise have been overlooked. Recommended.

-- Richard Haskell, The Whole Note

The recent revival of interest in Louise Farrenc’s music has unearthed a composer of stature, her Third Symphony in particular enjoying popularity. Here, Polk reveals some of Farrenc’s superbly crafted piano music.

A charming Air Russe varié launches the disc, while Farrenc’s ever-so-French way with found material ( from Bellini’s Norma and Souvenir des Huguenots) is mirrored by Polk’s legerdemain. Excerpts from the composer’s Etudes Op. 26 explore a variety of characters and styles, from breathlessly comedic to quasi-Schubertian, mournful aria to fugue. Polk’s dedication and pianistic command is complete, the recording first rank.

-- Colin Clarke, International Piano Louise Farrenc (1804–75) was better than most female composers in the mid 1800s. She was also a brilliant pianist and was the first female professor of piano at the Paris Conservatory. She demanded, and eventually got, equal pay to the male professors. Her 30 Etudes Op.26 for solo piano were composed in the shadow of her more illustrious contemporaries in Paris, Chopin and Liszt. They were nevertheless favorably reviewed and eventually adopted as required repertoire at the conservatory. She later wrote another 57 etudes in three different sets. She composed in many idioms, including three symphonies. The bulk of her music was for solo piano. Still, her chamber works are generally considered her best. It is significant that she married the music publisher Aristide Farrenc, who was a champion of her music and saw that most of it was printed. The Etudes, Op.26 were published in two books of 15 each, numbered 1–30. Polk has selected 8 from Book 1 and 7 from Book 2. These groups are balanced in terms of tempo, style, and technical demands. None are easy, and Polk's playing captures all of the music effortlessly. No. 14 grabbed my attention immediately because of its similarity to the piano writing in the Finale of Farrenc's Trio, Op.45. Had I known and learned that particular Etude, my struggles with the Trio would have been far less. Polk's program begins with three sets of variations: on an Air Russe, a Cavatina from Norma, and Les Huguenots. These certainly reminded me of Liszt, even using some of the same tunes he did (Norma especially). In general, Farrenc is more straightforward and less virtuosic.

I have had a particular interest in Farrenc's music for decades. The Trio for flute, piano, and cello is the largest chamber work I have ever performed. She arranged for duet several piano opera fantasies by Henri Herz, and one is in my performance repertoire. The solo works here are a welcome addition to my library and brought back many fond memories. Polk's selections and performances, along with booklet notes by Jeffrey Langford, are all that I could ever ask for and more. The recorded piano sound is right at the top of Steinway's expected excellence.

-- James Harrington, American Record Guide

Up until now, my entire exposure to the music of Louise Farrenc (1804–1875) has been to her symphonies, orchestral, and chamber works, leading me to rate her the greatest and most important female composer of the 19th century. Pace Clara Schumann and other women composers of the period, Farrenc donned a pair of Duluth Trading pants, rolled up her sleeves, and proved that a woman was equally capable of doing work considered the province of men.

This new release was my first encounter with any of Farrenc’s music for solo piano, and my suspicion told me that these pieces were going to reveal the side of her output that was deemed appropriate for a woman composer, whose first duties were those of wife and mother. In other words, I was expecting album-leaf-like compositions suitable for the parlor.

Boy, was I wrong! The Air russe varié that kicks of Joanne Polk’s program is not a piece for the parlor, it’s a piece for Parisienne salons. Composed 1835, it puts its Russian theme through its paces in eight variations that are as brilliantly virtuosic as anything being written by the piano celebrities of the day and ices the cake with a final variation in fugal style. Farrenc wasn’t writing for amateur pianists, nor did she demur from demonstrating to her audiences and fellow composers alike her prowess in compositional technique. Close piano celebrity contemporaries of Farrenc—Henselt, Hiller, and Taubert—eat your hearts out! Schumann, plotz! I guarantee you will be agape when you hear this piece.

The two opera paraphrases, Les italiennes, based on the Cavatina from Bellini’s Norma, and the Souvenir, based on themes from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, follow the salon and concert hall rage of the day for dazzling virtuoso display pieces. Both of these Farrenc numbers require plenty of pianistic resourcefulness, but neither impresses quite like the Air russe varié, though all three works were written in the same year. Melodically and harmonically, the style of the two paraphrase pieces sounds earlier, reaching back, especially in the case of the Souvenir to Schubert, with some of Farrenc’s keyboard figuration sounding like it’s right out of Schubert’s last sonatas. Still, the beauty of these pieces is striking and the technical thrills exciting.

No less riveting, and perhaps even more remarkable in revealing what a serious-minded and intellectually inclined composer Farrenc was, are the Études, of which Polk plays 15 of them, or half the number Farrenc wrote between 1835 and 1838. Like those before her and those who came after her, Farrenc contributed to the canon of composers’ études, preludes, and studies in all the major and minor keys. In Farrenc’s case, she duplicated six of the keys, giving us 30 études instead of 24. Ignoring the duplications—the first two études, for example, are both in C Major—she follows the same game plan that Chopin adopted for his Preludes, op. 28, which coincidentally, or not, were written at exactly the same time—between 1835 and 1839. The cycle begins in C Major, proceeds to the relative minor, A Minor, then around the major side of the Circle of Fifths to G Major and next its relative minor, E Minor, and so on. Two pianist-composers, Farrenc and Chopin, both in Paris at the same time, both working on a set of studies in all the major and minor keys that proceed according to the same sequence, at exactly the same time. I mean, what are the odds of that? In any case, Farrenc completed her cycle a year before Chopin completed his.

You’re apt to do a double-take when you hear the first of the études that Polk plays, the No. 3 in A Minor. It sounds like a steal from the central episode in the Rondo finale to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1. But Farrenc extends and develops it into something that sounds like a player piano roll in an amusement park arcade. It’s an absolute hoot. A professor of piano at the Paris Conservatory, Farrenc may have written the Études with her students in mind, as the compositions were designed to build technique and the expressive abilities of the player. And when it comes to expressive, the Étude No. 10 may just take your breath away. Chopin, plotz!

With several strongly positive reviews, Joanne Polk is not new to Fanfare. She received her Bachelor of Music and Master of Music Degrees from the Juilliard School, and her Doctor of Musical Arts Degree from Manhattan School of Music. In 2014, Polk was named one of Musical America’s Top 30 Professionals of the Year in an article titled, “Profiles in Courage.” Polk’s profile focused on her work promoting the music of women composers, an acknowledgment underscored by her recordings of music by Amy Beach, Chaminade, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Clara Schumann, Judith Lang Zaimont, and now Louise Farrenc. Fantastic music, terrific playing, stunning recording. Buy it, listen to it, and be verklempt.

-- Jerry Dubins, Fanfare

Even when entering the 21st century, things haven’t changed all that much compared to the early 19th century when women were forever in a quest to “break the glass ceiling”. Proverbial male dominance, whose hands endlessly controlled the strings like a marionette, made it difficult, at best, for the female pianist. However, back in the 1800s the playing field was thinly equalized through talent and determination of a select number of ladies, including the likes of Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn and Louise Farrenc. Why not give more attention to such accomplished women? Enter Joanne Polk whose own milestones have given females more say, no matter the time.

Louise Farrenc’s technical compositions are nothing short of stunning. Though etudes instantaneously bring Chopin and Liszt to mind, Farrenc, nonetheless, was another tour-de-force with an indefatigable mindset in eliciting her own channel of pure virtuosity and technical prowess. Half of the Parisian’s 30 etudes are found inside this compendium with each Book containing pieces of great punctuation and contrast.

Joanne Polk’s valuable quality is how deftly she can weave the power between her left and right hand, giving each “thought” its own pocket of personalized and instantaneous charm. Rollicking (n° 3), elegant momentum (n° 9), courtly melodramatic (n° 10), stupendous (n° 11), pearly graciousness (n° 18), frenetic (n° 22) and “Oh my!” (n° 14) are some of the endless adjectives/explanations that elicit the verve surrounding such compositions. “The faster, the better”, Joanne Polk relishes the challenge to break through two of Farrenc’s most audacious writings, the n° 8 with Czerny-like exercises and the n° 5 with its dizzying, spinning thrills that give determined catches of “sighs”. It’s within this piece that Joanne Polk strongly demonstrates her ambidexterity in moving the melody line from hand to hand while allowing a flummoxing finish which turns innocently on a major chord.

In the early 1800s Louise Farrenc capitalized on French, German and Italian opera by creating virtuosic variations based on a well-known tune. The first case turns to the “Druids Chorus” (ref: “Ite sul colle, o Druidi”) from Norma, giving majestic jubilation to Bellini’s best known opera...”coloratura on the keys”, Polk’s sophisticated depiction shines through and through. Similarly, borrowing from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Huguenot hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”, the Souvenir des Huguenots’ musical stanzas keep dripping like a dazzling tapestry. While Polk’s pulsating staccato are confidently executed (4’40), it’s the multitudinous roulades (6’00) which give the score a crowning touch.

Awesome on all fronts, Joanne Polk will engage and bedazzle...like a mathematical puzzle in need of someone who can make a logical equation out of the notes with utmost care and careful articulation...Joanne Polk is that one femme brillante.

-- Christie Grimstad, ConcertoNet.com

The recent focus on giving women their due in music and many other fields has sometimes led to presentation of less-than-compelling material that is offered only because it was created by females. At other times, though, works, musical and otherwise, show up that are excellent in and of themselves and just happen to have been written by women. That is the case with the new Steinway & Sons recording of piano music by Louise Farrenc (1804-1875): there is a great deal of marvelous material here, no matter its provenance. But lest contemporary opinion be too quick to attribute these works’ obscurity solely to the fact that their composer was a woman, it is worth recalling that much other music of the same time period received extremely high praise for a while and then fell into near-total obscurity – the creations of Kalkbrenner, Thalberg, Pixis and Herz, for instance. In a few other cases, piano music that fell into near-oblivion has recently been revived through the efforts of a champion, or a few of them: Alkan’s comes immediately to mind. And Farrenc, who was respected and successful in her own time, may well have found just the needed modern champion in Joanne Polk, who performs on this CD with utter dedication and compete involvement in the material. Indeed, Polk treats some of the works here as rather more consequential than they are: the weakness of Farrenc’s music lies in its superficiality and its reasons for being – partly to display Farrenc’s own considerable talents as a piano virtuoso, partly to help train the would-be virtuoso students whom she taught for 30 years at the Paris Conservatoire. Whether the Farrenc piano pieces heard here will prove to have staying power is to be determined – but whether they make an excellent impression in Polk’s hands is not: that is already quite clear. Display pieces these may be, but Polk displays them to excellent effect, in the process providing great insight into Farrenc’s compositional skill as well as what were clearly her considerable performance abilities. Three works here are from the standard-for-its-time category of variations on exotic or well-known tunes. Air Russe Varié is of the former type, subjecting a folk melody to a wide variety of intricate presentations. Les Italiennes, Op. 14: No. 1, Cavatine de Norma falls into the well-known-tune area, using a still-famous Bellini melody as its basis; likewise, Souvenir des Huguenots rings multiple changes – very effectively – on an excerpt from Meyerbeer’s sprawling and once super-popular opera. Collectively, these three works shine a light on Farrenc as virtuoso; but they take up only one-third of Polk’s recital. The remainder of the CD focuses on Farrenc as teacher – and here the material, although clearly created with an academic purpose, rises well above its reason for being, as the three sets of variations do not. Farrenc wrote 30 etudes in major and minor keys, collecting them in two “books” published as her Op. 26. Polk offers Nos. 3, 5, 9-12, 14 and 15 from Book I, and Nos. 17, 18, 21, 22, 24, 25 and 29 from Book II. This half-helping of the totality is more than enough to whet the appetite for a recording of all 30 of these beautifully formed pieces. Farrenc’s etudes do not push the boundaries of the form into near-unrecognizability, as Alkan’s do: their instructional elements remain clear and in the forefront, and their lengths are in the modest two-to-five-minute range. But within their genre, these etudes offer far more listening pleasure than most, thanks to Farrenc’s well-constructed themes and the way she combines specific forms of intricacy with genuinely enjoyable music-making – a fine way to captivate piano students. Thus, the galloping Presto of No. 11, the finely constructed neo-Baroque two-voice fugue of No. 12, the heart-on-sleeve Andante affettuoso of No. 15, the juxtaposition of the piano’s high and low ranges in No. 22, the bravura Allegro energico of No. 25 – these elements and many others display Farrenc’s compositional prowess in a distinct way, in addition to and independent of the pieces’ academic value. It is by no means certain that Farrenc’s piano music – or, for that matter, her other music, which includes everything from chamber pieces to three symphonies – will go through a complete revival for 21st-century audiences. But Polk’s recording constitutes a strong argument in favor of hearing a good deal more of it a good deal more frequently.

-- Infodad.com

"This is the kind of composer that fires up pianist Joanne Polk. We can thank her for her attention to women in music – she devoted herself to the complete piano music of the wonderful American composer Amy Beach with recordings known the world over. Before that it was Clara Schumann, and in 2014, Cécile Chaminade. Now, Joanne has a new CD that features variations, etudes, and more by Louise Farrenc, offering a glimpse into the sound world of a strong, imaginative woman who composed alongside giants like Liszt and Chopin.

Listen to the Air Russe Varié (track 1) for the flavor of Farrenc at her most unpredictably sensitive – a set of variations that breathes and sings through the caring intelligence of Joanne Polk’s approach.

Etudes are meant as practice pieces for the uncountable challenges that pianists are constantly running up against. The trick for a composer is to get something recognizably heartfelt to rise to the top. Joanne Polk has picked her favorites from the thirty that Farrenc wrote in 1838. You’ll hear a real sense of joy in No. 11 (track 8), while No. 21 (track 14) radiates the warmth of a hymn, testing the pianist’s ability to control what’s in the foreground and what’s in the background."

-- Cathy Fuller, WCRB

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