Female Artists Matter: Sarah Cahill’s Survey of Piano Music by Neglected Women Composers


First Hand Records FHR 131

Strictly speaking all women composers are neglected. Despite significant efforts in recent years there remain significant disparities in the representation of women composers in the concert and recital halls. Realistically it will take years just to catch up on those composers whose music has languished in unfair obscurity. Now in this International Women’s Month we are seeing the release of a great deal of music by various artists attempting to correct this neglect each with their own lens. Here we have the first installment of three planned CDs by the Berkeley based pianist, Sarah Cahill. This volume, titled “In Nature” is to be followed by one called “At Play” in November, 2022 and “The Dance” in March, 2023.

Photo by Christine Alicino from Cahill’s web site

Cahill is as much curator as artist, a skill evident in her weekly radio program “Revolutions Per Minute” on Bay Area radio station KALW and any number of creative concerts and musical projects in the San Francisco area. She is an internationally acclaimed recitalist and soloist and her You Tube Channel is one I frequently visit just to see what she’s up to. It is where I first heard many of the women composers featured on the present CD and a place where one can get a sense of her unique choices of repertory that characterize her career. Her husband, acclaimed videographer and video artist John Sanborn does the camera work and I must say that these videos were a welcome respite during the COVID lockdown and an opportunity to experience her musicianship up close and personal (only a page turner at a recital gets a better seat).

The first release in this series contains music spanning some 250+ years. The first selection is by Anna Bon (1739/40-ca.1767) which puts her in the late baroque/early classical era. This is the 5th (of 6) in her Opus 2 sonatas for keyboard. This is the first recording on a piano of this entertaining work by this Venetian composer who died in her 20s. Listeners will discern echoes of Mozart (1756-1791) and Haydn (1732-1809) for whom she sang in the choir at Prince Esterhazy’s, Haydn’s celebrated patron and employer. But the sound of the mature J.S. Bach (1685-1750) certainly dominates this very accomplished sonata. This writer hears it almost as a not too distant relative of the Goldberg Variations.

Next we come to 1846 with the music of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847), sister of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Though Fanny composed some 450 pieces in her short life most remained unknown and some were falsely attributed to her more famous younger brother, Felix. In fact he published some of her work under his name (in his Opus 8 and 9 collections) as women rarely got published at the time and Felix recognized his older sister’s talent.

Cahill has chosen numbers one and three of Fanny’s Opus 8 “Four Lieder for Piano” (a form which her younger brother would later embrace in his “Songs Without Words”). These accomplished early romantic works will leave the listener wanting more of this woman’s music which remains still largely unrecorded. They are a testament to her inventiveness as a composer as well as her virtuosity as a pianist and one hopes for a reassessment of her work.

The next selection comes from a Venezuelan composer, soprano, pianist Teresa Carreño (1853-1917). Sometimes referred to as the “Valkyrie of the Piano”, she had a 54 year career championing the work of luminaries such as Edward MacDowell and Edvard Grieg. Her 1848 etude-meditation, “A Dream at Sea” is a romantic virtuosic work that sounds like a challenge to play but a joy for the listener. This deserves to be in the recitalist’s repertory.

The next unknown gem in this fine collection comes from the pen of Leokadiya Aleksandrovna Kashperova (1872-1940) who was one of Igor Stravinsky’s piano teachers. In a sad echo of present day events Kashperova’s works, though published, were suppressed from performance due to her Bolshevik in exile husband whose politics were, to say the least, unpopular. Cahill here plays her Murmur of the Wheat from the piano suite, “In the Midst of Nature” (1910). Cahill handles the finger busting, Lisztian virtuosity with seeming ease and makes a case both for the further exploration of this woman’s music and the inclusion of it in the performing repertoire. This recording is the commercial recording premiere of the work.

We move now from one of Stravinsky’s piano teachers to one of John Cage’s. American composer, pianist, educator Fannie Charles Dillon (1881-1947) studied composition with Rubin Goldmark (one of Aaron Copland’s teachers) and piano with the great virtuoso Leopold Godowsky.

Years before Olivier Messiaen took up the practice, Dillon, was known for the inclusion of birdsong in her works. One of her 8 Descriptive Pieces, “Birds at Dawn Op. 20 No. 2” (1917) was performed and recorded by early 20th century virtuoso Josef Hoffman. Cahill comments in her fine liner notes, “Dillon’s score is remarkable in its specific notation of bird songs: the Chickadee, Wren-tit, Thrush, Canyon Wren, Vireo, and Warbling Vireo…”. It is indeed a sonic painting of the birds at dawn.

The Czech composer, conductor, pianist Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) was the daughter of composer, pianist Václav Kaprál (1889-1947). She composed some 50 works in her short life and died at the age of 25 in Montpelier, France two days after France surrendered to the Nazis. Her four “April Preludes Op. 13” were written for the Moravian-American pianist Rudolf Firkušný and are her best known piano works. Cahill has chosen the first and third for this recording. The music is notable for its exploration of extended harmonic language and made this listener curious about her other compositions.

This next work is a classic Cahill achievement. As a pianist known for working with living composers as well as being a producer who knows good music when she hears it this is a bit of musical archeology that brings to life in this world premiere recording a work from 1949 by Hungarian pianist Agi Jambor (1909-1997). Jambor studied with the legendary Edwin Fischer and had a career as a pianist and teacher very tragically interrupted by the events of World War II. She came to the United States in 1947 where her husband passed away two years later. She taught at Bryn Mawr College and was granted Emeritus status in 1974.

Her three movement Piano Sonata “To the Victims of Auschwitz” was brought into a legible and performable score with the assistance of Dr. John DesMarteau who befriended Jambor late in her life and to whom the piece is dedicated. And it was in consultation with Dr. DesMarteau, Cahill writes, that she was assisted in the interpretation of this music. According to Cahill’s liner notes this work attempts to represent sonically some of Jambor’s war time memories. It is a substantial work, a lost and lonely artifact of history given a definitive performance and recording.

The amazing composer Eve Beglarian (1958- ), the only of these composers known to this reviewer prior to receiving this album, provides the next offering, “Fireside” (2001). It is in fact a Cahill commission for a project commemorating the centennial of another neglected female composer, Ruth Crawford (Seeger) (1901-1953). Beglarian takes a poem written by the 13 year old Ruth Crawford hopefully describing her fantasy of what she would be in future years and, utilizing some chords from one of Crawford’s piano pieces, constructs a powerful meditation on the subject at hand. As it turned out Crawford wound up giving up her composing career to work with musicologist Charles Seeger, not exactly tragic, but hardly what her 13 year old self had imagined. Beglarian writes that “Fireside is dedicated to women composers of the future, who will undoubtedly be making devils bargains of their own.”, a cynicism which is hard to deny.

This piece, in its world premiere commercial recording, is one of a genre unique to the 20th and 21st centuries, that of the speaking pianist. This puts in in a category shared by works like Frederic Rzewski’s classic “De Profundis” (1994) and Kyle Gann’s “War is Just a Racket” (2008), a Cahill commission for yet another of her fascinating themed projects and recorded on her CD, “A Sweeter Music” released in 2013.

The penultimate track on this journey is provided by Belfast born (now in London) Irish composer Deirdre Gribbin (1967- ). “Unseen” (2017), in its commercial recording premiere, is described by the composer as a sort of meditation on the innocent victims of violence she has seen in her now home city of London whose presence is frequently unseen by many and, in the composer’s words, “reflects my desire to embrace an awareness more fully of my immediate surroundings in all their beauty and cruel pain”.

Mary D. Watkins (1939- ) is an American pianist and composer, a graduate of Howard University who has penned three operas as we as music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, jazz ensembles, and solo piano. She is a fine pianist, an advocate for Black

At first glance I was struck by Shane Keaney’s dark, drab art work of this album’s cover. It echoes the photographic work of Declan Haun and his contemporaries who documented the harrowing events of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. But after reading the harrowing stories behind this music I find it entirely apt. There is certainly beauty here but also pain and sadness. The monochrome portraits that make up the inside of this gatefold album charmingly includes Sarah Cahill’s face alongside portraits of the composers within, a reflection of the pianist’s solidarity with them. And the other photos in the booklet by Cahill’s daughter Miranda Sanborn add to the sense of connectedness that seems to characterize her projects. This is a wonderful start to a promising project.