Ten exceptional albums by women composers, released since the last International Women's Day
When International Women’s Day was first recognized as a United Nations holiday in 1975, the notion of programming an entire day of classical music composed by women for the radio would have been a steep challenge.
Today, thanks the to the tireless advocacy and efforts of many forward-thinking activists, scholars, musicians, and record label professionals, radio programmers are faced with the opposite problem: so much excellent classical music by women has been recorded in the last decades that it is impossible to curate anything more than a representative sample in a given 24 hours.
To be sure, there’s plenty of work left to be done before even a semblance of equity can be claimed. American orchestras have increasingly featured compositions by women, but only one of our country’s 25 largest orchestras has a woman as its music director.
But there are also glimmers of hope. Dozens of vibrant recordings of works by women composers released since the last International Women’s Day are a barometer of progress, underscoring how far we’ve come. Here are 10 of our favorites.
Clare Hammond, Hélène de Montgeroult - Études
“How can music of this quality and vision be forgotten so comprehensively for so long?” With sparkling pianism and tremendous depth of feeling, the British pianist Clare Hammond boldly underscores the question she’s posed in her notes to this enticing survey of etudes by the early-19th century French virtuoso Hélène de Montgeroult.
New York Youth Symphony, Jessie Montgomery, Valerie Coleman, and Florence Price
The Grammy committee was shrewd to award the 2023 Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance to the New York Youth Symphony and conductor Michael Repper for these impassioned readings of works by Jessie Montgomery, Valerie Coleman, and Florence Price (featuring Curtis Institute professor Michelle Cann in Price’s Piano Concerto). In their hands, the future of orchestral music in this country seems reassuringly bright.
Juliana Koch, BBC Philharmonic, Rumon Gamba, Gipps: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2
Conductor Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic continue their exploration of the 20th century British composer Ruth Gipps with premiere recordings of four works, including her elegantly robust Symphony No. 3 and bucolic, yet bustling Oboe Concerto.
Charlotte Sohy: Compositrice de la Belle Epoque
French cellist Héloïse Luzzati created the record label La Boîte à Pépites (“The Jewel Box”) with the express purpose of releasing previously unrecorded works by women composers. The label’s first project focuses on Charlotte Sohy, whose urbane melodies and kaleidoscopic, post-Impressionist harmonies brilliantly conjure the zeitgeist of Jazz Age Paris.
NDR Radio Philharmonic, Emilie Mayer: Symphonies 3 & 7
It’s a real shame that, until last summer, no recordings existed of these symphonies by the German composer Emilie Mayer. Each is a tour de force of economical, yet potent early Romantic-era orchestration, deftly and vigorously brought to life by Jan Willem de Vriend and the North German Radio Philharmonic.
Grace Davidson, Sacred Chants: Hildegard von Bingen
Grace Davidson’s utterly serene, siren-like soprano distills the mystical chants of the 12th century polymath Hildegard von Bingen with piercing, blissful clarity.
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Dora Pejačević: Piano Concerto & Symphony
The bold, burnished sound achieved by conductor Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is the first on record to truly do justice to Pejačević’s lush 1917 Symphony in F-sharp minor, the first modern symphony by a Croatian composer. Equally inspired is pianist Peter Donohoe’s account of her 1911 Piano Concerto; its middle movement is a masterclass in lyricism and finesse.
Caroline Shaw / Attacca Quartet, Evergreen
No composer working today marries experimentalism and intimacy as elegantly as Caroline Shaw. Evergreen, Shaw’s second Grammy-winning collaboration with the Attacca Quartet, pushes the ensemble to its most ethereal extremes with spine-tingling results.
The Dessoff Choirs, Margaret Bonds: Credo, Simon Bore the Cross
In his Album of the Week review of this radiant pairing of choral masterworks by Margaret Bonds, Nate Chinen writes: “The Dessoff Choirs has a profound simpatico with Bonds’ mature compositional style, a glowing synthesis of African American and European concert music.” I couldn’t offer a more emphatic co-sign.
Christina Bjørkøe, Fanny Mendelssohn: Das Jahr
The individual character of each movement in Fanny Mendelssohn’s 1841 musical portrait of the twelve months, Das Jahr, is accentuated with sensitivity, humor, and nuance by the Danish pianist Christina Bjørkøe in this eminently polished reading. From the snowed-in languor of January to the restless Yuletide cheer of December, she demonstrates why this is a year unlike any other.