20th-Century Women Composers
Rebecca Clarke, Lili Boulanger and Amy Beach were pioneers at a time when musical careers for women were limited away from the operatic stage. British-born Clarke (1886-1979) defied paternal ostracism to forge a path for herself as composer and viola player, though she also wrote under the pseudonym Anthony Trent and found that ‘his’ work attracted more critical attention than pieces produced under her own name. Boulanger (1893-1918), encouraged by the Franco-Russian family that included elder sister Nadia (who believed Lili’s talents exceeded her own), was the first female winner of the Prix de Rome. Beach – the formidably respectable Mrs HHA Beach, as she styled herself – was the first American woman to tackle large symphonic and choral forms in addition to the songs on which her reputation rests.
The fine Swiss-Italian Trio des Alpes thoughtfully assess a variable collection of their chamber works. Beach is notably conservative and her 1938 String Trio, once past a provocative cascade of whole-tone scales at the start, rapidly settles into post-Brahmsian rectitude. She’s better represented by the songs with ensemble accompaniment, though their impact is blunted by soprano Lorna Windsor, unsteady, bottled-sounding and not always helped by the close recording. Boulanger’s two pieces were written shortly before her tragic death aged only 24; the first, Un soir triste, sustains a series of quietly shifting, unresolved dissonances over its compelling 11-minute span. Clarke’s 1921 Trio is the real revelation, a work of almost Bartókian asperity, tautly controlled and haunted by a reiterated, jabbing monotone that never lets the music or the listener settle. It also gets by far the best performance – fluent, committed and wonderfully energetic throughout.