Peter Jacobs

Piano Music by Cécile Chaminade, Vol. 3

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French composer Cécile Chaminade attained extraordinary popularity in France, England, and the U.S. in the years on either side of 1900. Large American cities and even some smaller ones even boasted Chaminade Clubs that used her name as an acronym for their motto: "C -- Concentrated & Concerted Effort; H -- Harmony of Spirit & Work; A -- Artistic Ideals; M -- Musical Merit Maintained," and so on. The disappearance of her work during the mid century is hard to attribute to anything but gender bias, as is amply illustrated in the booklet to this Peter Jacobs recording of selected Chaminade pieces (which should, however, have been updated to reflect the fact that the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary is considerably friendlier to Chaminade than the first one was). Although this is the third in a series of discs devoted to Chaminade's abundant piano music, it's a good one to pick for those in search of just one. Jacobs' selections here cover an example -- the Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 21 -- of the more ambitious Chaminade works that have captured the attention of feminist scholars, along with shorter pieces of various kinds. There are character pieces like Inquiétude, Op. 87 (Anxiety). The high opus numbers of these works testify both to Chaminade's success and to the speed with which she composed short, technically simpler piano works. Some of them tend to run together when heard as a group, but Jacobs varies the program with a set of delightful works for children, short pieces drawn from the Album des enfants, Op. 123. Some of these look back to the Baroque and Classical eras, at a time when such retrospective impulses were in their infancy. Especially interesting is the Rigaudon, Op. 55. No. 6, which is easy to play although not specifically designated for young performers. Add a couple of decades and a sense of impending chaos, and these works would come close to Satie; as they stand, they are subtle miniatures of a high order. Booklet writer Calum MacDonald makes the excellent point that much of Chaminade's piano music is carefully crafted to sound more difficult than it actually is.

Jacobs mostly keeps a light touch appropriate to the salons where this music would originally have been heard, but he shifts gears convincingly for the rather Beethovenian and genuinely difficult Piano Sonata in C minor. This work has justifiably been subjected to close readings that seek clues to Chaminade's attitudes toward gender. Especially interesting is the first movement, whose quieter second theme (the "feminine" theme, by the nineteenth century's lights) departs from convention with its unexpected fugal texture. It is as if Chaminade were trying to display her mastery of counterpoint, which she had not been allowed to study at the Paris Conservatory (which did not admit women at the time). Jacobs presents a generous, sympathetic selection of Chaminade's works.