Classical Album of the Week: Her Voice — Piano Trios by Three Important Women Composers

Mar 2, 2020

March 2, 2020. The Neave Trio gives glorious voice to piano trios by three prominent women composers in our Classical Album of the Week. Her Voice shows how Louise Farrenc (1804-1875), Amy Beach (1867-1944), and Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) were masters of the chamber music genre.

One work in particular, the Piano Trio of Rebecca Clarke, glows with genius.

This is especially poignant when we consider that Clarke, discouraged from the opposition she faced as a woman composer, quit composing during the last 35 years of her life.

Hers is a fascinating story.

After a tumultuous childhood, Clarke studied composition and viola at the Royal College of Music, and became a professional violist in 1912, one of the first women to be hired by a major symphony orchestra.

In 1920 she entered her Viola Sonata in the important Berkshire Music Festival competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge under the name “Anthony Trent.” The sonata, which is now a staple of the viola repertoire, was runner-up in a field of over 70 works, coming in behind a sonata by Ernest Bloch. Critics were in disbelief when it was revealed that the composer’s real name was Rebecca Clarke. The Daily Telegraph, incredulous that a woman could have produced a piece of such quality, speculated that Rebecca Clarke was a pseudonym for Ernest Bloch himself.

Two years later, Clarke’s Piano Trio of 1921, under the pseudonym Anthony Trent, came in as runner-up in the Berkshire Music Festival competition, and again was met by disbelief when its composer was revealed to be a woman.

The Neave Trio’s performance reveals why Clarke’s three-movement Piano Trio caused such a sensation. Full of shifting and entrancing harmonies, Clarke lets her imagination fly with string and piano textures that create an arresting sound world. There’s a searching quality in the melodic writing that draws in the listener. Most important, underlying the unique beauty of Clarke's sound palette is a fiercely concise structure that gives the piece a sense of forward momentum and a “what comes next?” feeling of suspense that only the greatest pieces of music achieve.

The older composers Louise Farrenc and Amy Beach achieved much greater renown during their lifetimes than did Clarke. Farrenc, from a wealthy, supportive Parisian family, drew admiration for her pianistic prowess and large-scale works in the symphonic genre. She also exerted influence as the first female professor of piano at the Paris Conservatory. In our Classical Album of the Week, Farrenc’s Piano Trio No. 1 (of three) is given a clear, committed performance by the Neave Trio. Farrenc’s understanding and admiration of Beethoven’s middle-period style comes through.

American composer Amy Beach built a long and successful career as a concert pianist and as a composer of both large-scale and intimate works. She was the only female member of the esteemed Second New England School of composers. Beach completed her Piano Trio at age 71; it was her last major composition. Though its themes derive from songs she had written early in her career, it possesses the sense of mystery of a serious composer’s “late style.”

Throughout our Classical Album of the Week, the Neave Trio plays with sensitivity, passion, and technical finesse. Each member of the ensemble (Anna Williams, violin; Mikhail Veselov, cello; Eri Nakamura, piano) brings balance and a beauty of sound to this album, making these neglected but important works a pleasure to hear.