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.

Wilhelmina Smith, a Revelatory Solo Cello Release


ODE 1381-2

I think I can say with assurance that the unaccompanied cello repertoire begins with the Bach solo cello suites. But the concept of this kind of music being worthy of public performance began with Pablo Casals in the early 20th century. Indeed the lovely Bach suites regularly get recorded and performed live pretty frequently with appreciative audiences.

What is generally lesser known is that there exists a large repertoire of unaccompanied cello music which was created in the post Bach era. That’s nearly 300 years and most of this repertory remains largely unknown and, in may cases, unperformed. Rather than attempting to list these I refer the interested listener to the list here on Wikipedia. The list is not exhaustive but it is a fair representation of the extant music.

Wilhelmina Smith, having already produced a fine recording of unaccompanied cello music by Finnish composers Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho, now surveys works of this genre by Danish composers Per Nørgård (1932- ) and Poul Ruders (1949- ).

The quite excellent liner notes by Søren Schauser do a great job of providing a context and a basic analysis of what the listener is hearing in these works. He also provides some historical context and a fellow Dane’s impression of the deeper associations which might be felt by a Nordic audience. But these works are not insular in their intent or their presentation. Make no mistake that these are major works which will speak to all who care to hear.

I have made no secret of my personal love of the music from the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Faroe Islands, and Iceland). And this disc serves to bolster my enthusiasm further. These works span the years 1953 to 1976 and embody largely neoclassical and and post-romantic styles which are very friendly to the ear.

The sheer nakedness of a performance on an instrument usually embedded in a larger context (accompanied by piano or electronics, in a string quartet, or in a symphony orchestra) brings an intense intimacy to the performance. The performer is fully exposed and the music relies on exactly that intensity. Yes, this is a recording but it is not difficult to imagine these performances eliciting reverent silences, of breaths being held, of a level of engagement that elicits rapt attentions.

Completists will be thrilled to have all three of Per Nørgård’s three Solo Cello Sonatas. Nørgård, an internationally regarded master, is better known for this large orchestral works and concertos but here we get to experience him at his most intimate. The first so called “sonatas” appears to take a more classical approach. Even the naming of the three movements (Lento ma espansivo – Allegro non troppo, Tranquillo, Allegro con brio) suggest a more classical approach. This largely tonal piece has both romantic and neoclassical aspects with soaring melodies and classical developments. The second sonata, subtitled “In due tempi” is unusual in that its two movements are separated by compositional dates separated by 27 years. One thinks of Felix Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture separated by 17 years from the subsequent incidental music. So we have a first movement form 1953 followed by a second movement from 1980. This second sonata has much in common with the sound world of the first but the second movement does hint at a more mature style in kind with other works from that historical period. The third sonata, in three movements as was the first, is from 1999 and it is most clearly of a later style. It carries the subtitle, “What – is the Word!”. The movement titles (Prayer, Outcry, Prayer II) are clues to the more deeply existential mood of this piece. Still using basically tonal language, this sonata seems to describe more painful and introspective moods.

Now we come to a work by Poul Ruders (1949- ), “Bravourstudien” (L’Homme Armé Variations) (1976). This is essentially a set of variations on the medieval tune, “L’Homme Armé” (The Armed Man). It is cast in 10 movements (Overture, Recitative, Serenade 1, Potpourri, Etude, Intermezzo, Fantasia, Serenade 2, Finale: Variation classique, L’Homme armé). It is perhaps more deconstruction than classical variation but one need know nothing of the composer’s compositional techniques to appreciate the results.

This is not the first recordings of these works but these performances and the clean Ondine records sound make this release a welcome addition to the ever expanding discography of solo cello repertory and the music of Nordic master composers. You must hear this.

Words Fail and Music Succeeds: Violinist Yevgeny Kutik


Marquis 774718147721

 

Politics requires words and indeed fails at times but music very much succeeds in this fine recording.  This charming collection organized loosely around songs without words is the third album by this emerging artist.

The music is largely 20th to 21st century (if you count the date of the transcriptions) but the sound and mood of the album ranges from the romanticism of Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, the post-romantic Mahler, to the neo-classicism of Prokofiev and a dash of modernism from Messiaen, Gandolfi, Andres, and Auerbach.  No words, no politics, just some really beautiful music.

There are 14 tracks of which the Mendelssohn and the Mahler will be the most familiar to listeners.  What is interesting here is a certain unity in these seemingly disparate works which range over nearly 200 years of compositional invention.  In fact this recital program strongly resembles in spirit the justly popular programs of Jascha Heifetz and his acolytes.  That is to say that this is at heart a romantic recital program sure to please any aficionado of the violin and piano genre.

Two of the tracks, those by Michael Gandolfi and Lera Auerbach are for solo violin.  The unaccompanied violin repertoire best represented by J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas is a relatively small one and one fraught with difficulties for composers as well as performers.  Fear not though, these pieces are well wrought and represent significant contributions to the solo violin literature.

The Gandolfi (1956- ) Arioso doloroso/Ecstatico (2016) was commissioned by Mr. Kutik and this is the world premiere recording.  The composer utilizes a basically romantic sounding style with clear references to Bach at moments to create a very satisfying piece imbued with depth but eminently listenable.  Gandolfi’s eclectic oeuvre is by itself worthy of further exploration.

Lera Auerbach’s (1973- ) T’Filah (2015) is a reverent (though not excessively somber) prayer written in memory of the victims of the Nazi holocaust.  Auerbach shares some Russian roots with the soloist and this brief composition will leave most listeners wanting to hear more from this fine and prolific composer.

Timo Andrés (1985- ) plays the piano on the eponymous track Words fail (2015), the second of the two works commissioned by Kutik and premiered on this disc.  He is a skilled composer using a wide variety of compositional and instrumental techniques (which he mentions in his liner notes) to create a sort of modern song without words that fits so well in this program.  Andrés is certainly among the rising stars both as composer and performer.

One should definitely pay attention to the fine work of Kutik’s accompanist John Novacek whose precision and interpretive skill so well compliment the soloist.  The art of the accompanist shines very clearly here.

Overall a great recital disc from a soloist from whom we will doubtless continue to hear great things.

Discovering and Preserving a Legacy: Tod Dockstader: From the Archives


dockarch

Starkland ST-226

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that this disc is a major and important release.  The history of music includes a fair amount of instances in which a second look at a particular composer who had been neglected yields a rediscovery which places said composer to their proper place in history.  Such was the case with Mendelssohn famously rediscovering Bach and Sir Thomas Beecham championing the works of Hector Berlioz. Conductor Robert Craft brought the work of Anton Webern to a larger audience with his recording of the complete works back in the 1950s and, more recently, Michael Tilson Thomas did a similar favor for the work of Carl Ruggles.  Of course not every musico-archaeological effort yields great results but the present release would appear to be auspiciously positioned to bring delight to listeners as well as place its composer in a more appropriately prominent place in the history books.  Now we are treated to a previously unknown cache of musical treasures from such a master, the digital equivalent of discovering Tut’s tomb.  It is an amazing disc on many levels.

This recording is nearly as much the accomplishment of Starkland Records’ producer Tom Steenland as it is of the composer Tod Dockstader (1932-2015).  Starkland’s  first two releases were CD reissues of the composer’s four Owl Records albums from the mid-1960s. It was the musicological acumen of Steenland whose love for those albums that helped provide motivation for him to found Starkland Records and promote this important electronic composer to proper historical recognition.  Dockstader was, in turn, inspired by the very positive response to those reissues to end his thirty year hiatus and return to composing.  He subsequently released the three volumes of Aerial (2005-6) on Sub Rosa and two collaborations with David Lee Myers (whose thumbprint is to be found on the present recording as well), Pond (2004) and Bijou (2005).

As if all that weren’t quite enough a new chapter dawned shortly after Dockstader died in 2015.  He left behind his archive of tapes and record releases and something more.  Justin Brierly, a radio host, was a fan of Dockstader’s music and wanted to interview him for his show.  He contacted Tom Steenland who was able to put him in touch and he was able to visit and interview the composer on several occasions.  The composer’s daughter, Tina Dockstader Kinard, gave Brierly the computer tower containing work files which had been saved on that hard drive over the years. There were thousands of files in various stages of completion, some just sample files, some duplicates, but many complete or nearly complete compositions that had not been heard since they were created.  Brierly sorted through these and sent some 50 files to Tom Steenland who carefully selected 15 tracks for the present release.

Tod Dockstader was a composer with a day job, that is he worked as a film and sound editor and took advantage of his access to what would have been prohibitively expensive equipment at the time to create his own brand of electronic music.  Sadly Vladimir Ussachevsky denied him access to the Columbia-Princeton Studios back in 1961.

Stylistically he holds much in common with his antecedents Edgar Varese, Pierre Henry, Louis and Bebe Barron, Pierre Schaeffer as well as contemporaries such as Morton Subotnick and Andrew Rudin. His albums from the 1960s of course utilized the tape splicing techniques and analog equipment of the time.  Some of the music from his Eight Electronic Pieces (1961) album was selected (as were some of Andrew Rudin’s electronic compositions) for inclusion in the soundtrack for Frederico Fellini’s Satyricon (1969).

When he returned to composing in the late 1990s studios were digitally driven and computers ruled. He reportedly had little difficulty learning and using computers for his later works. Despite the change from analog to digital media however Dockstader’s style remained extremely consistent, a clear and unique voice in the musical landscape.

Prior to this release it had been thought that his last word musically was the three volume Aerial series of 2005-6.  Now Starkland presents this lovingly selected cache of the composer’s most recent works.  He had effectively stopped composing in 2008 wrestling with the ravages of dementia but did listen and comment at times with Brierly during his visits on some of these files and, fittingly, enjoyed the fruits of his own labors to the very end of his life in 2015.  There’s no doubt more of a story to be told there for sure and here’s hoping that we may soon see a comprehensive biographical and musical assessment of his work.

For the wonderful liner notes Steenland recruited Geeta Dayal,  a San Francisco based writer whose writings on music can be accessed from her website and are well worth your time to investigate.  She comes with quite a pedigree as a writer on the subject of electronic music both old and new.  Her liner notes are both authoritative and good reading.  She would be my vote for a Dockstader biographer.

The exact intentions of the compositional process cannot be determined (Dockstader left no notes about these files) but it seems clear that these are all late period pieces.  They are all dated between 2005 and 2008.  The titles of these pieces were made based in part on the computer file names for the pieces which had not gotten their final naming by the composer.  One can only imagine the labor of love involved in Brierly’s and Steenland’s distillation of these final 15 tracks but the end result is a very satisfying collection consistent in quality to previous releases and a worthy representation of his last works (though this reviewer is given to hopeful wonder that a volume II might emerge in the near future).  At any rate Dockstader’s legacy is now secure and no doubt there will be much research done on his work made easier now by the dedicated sleuthing of these producers.

The first track, Super Choral (2007) contains some collaboration with David Lee Myers as mentioned earlier and it is used with his permission.  I won’t try to describe the rest of these pieces except to say that they seem to be a worthwhile contribution to the art of electronic music, are excellently crafted and eminently listenable.

The liner notes with their studio porn images of Dockstader’s beloved Ampex machines are tastefully mixed with images of the composer and his family.  The mastering was done by the wonderful Silas Brown and is about as good as it gets.  I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute to the composer’s legacy than this and I can’t imagine this not being nominated for a Grammy.  Bravo gentlemen!

Release is scheduled for November 18th.  You can pre-order both the download and the physical disc on Amazon.