Classical Album of the Week: French Composer and Pianist Louise Farrenc's Second & Third Symphonies

May 28, 2019

May 27, 2019. The year 2018 saw a tipping point for the visibility of women composers—both on the stages of concert halls and across the year’s released recordings. And 2019 sees their footprint continue to grow.

A standout among those releases, on the Naxos label, features performances of Louise Farrenc’s second and third symphonies by the Solistes Européens Luxembourg and their Principal Conductor & Music Director Christoph König.

Louise Farrenc, circa 1855
Credit Wikipedia/Bibliotheque nationale de France

While there are a few other albums of Farrenc’s orchestral music, pre-dating this one, none have paired the second and third symphonies, a welcome and overdue step for works so essential to a complete picture of 19th-century symphonic repertoire. 

With May 31, 2019 being the 215th anniversary of her birth, it’s a perfect time to take a dive into this album.

Parisian Louise Farrenc (1804 –1875) was an unlikely symphonist by mid-19th century French standards. At the time, the French were consumed by opera. Symphonic music was hardly ever written (and what was composed was rarely performed).

What’s more, Farrenc was a busy, respected piano teacher at the Paris Conservatoire and, not least, she was a woman composing in a form infused with masculine associations. In spite of being heartily encouraged by publisher (and husband), Aristide Farrenc, Louise, modest as she was, resisted steps toward publication. These many constraints belie the richly crafted, self-assured writing by Farrenc, on full display in this new release.  

Sample Farrenc at the peak of her compositional powers in this 2018 performance of her third symphony by the l'Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France under the direction of Mikko Franck. A few plaintive opening exchanges between the winds and strings are followed by the broad, sweeping sounds of this master symphonist launching into, arguably, her finest work, which was premiered in 1849 alongside no less than Beethoven’s Fifth.

Farrenc: Symphony No. 3 in G minor, Op. 36 (1847)
L'Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France, Mikko Franck, conductor

For those hoping to explore more works by women composers and get a sense of their contribution to the canon, Farrenc will be a wonderful discovery.