Music by Marie Jaëll

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Marie Jaëll
LABELS: Ediciones Singulares
ALBUM TITLE: Marie Jaëll
WORKS: Cello Concerto; Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2; Douze valses et finale; Les jours pluvieux
PERFORMER: Xavier Phillips (cello), David Bismuth, Lidija & Sanja Bizjak, Dana Ciocarlie, Romain Descharmes, etc (piano); Brussels Philharmonic/Hervé Niquet; Orchestre national de Lille/Joseph Swensen
CATALOGUE NO: Ediciones Singulares ES 1022

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Marie Jaëll (1846-1925) had a supportive pianist husband who did not demand that she renounce her musical ambitions, and fell under the spell of Franz Liszt on first hearing him in 1868; she later became his pupil. Her accomplishments as pianist and teacher found lasting influence in her piano method, but were exceeded by her determination to compose. Saint-Saëns, another vital influence on her music, remarked: ‘Her first attempts [at composition] have been tumultuous, excessive, not unlike the bursting forth of a devastating torrent…’

The concertos, one for cello, two for piano, are somewhat in the vein of Saint-Saëns – demanding, energetic, reasonably lyrical – though they also seem driven, overblown, struggle-ridden, possibly trying too hard. The Brahmsian waltzes for piano duet apart, often Jaëll’s concepts seem doomed from the outset. A supposedly humorous song cycle about bears, La légende des ours, is heavy-handed and desperately unamusing. Many of the piano pieces in Ce qu’on entend… – in hell, purgatory and heaven – are formed from ideas so unpromising and repetitive that each is twice too long, despite averaging around only four minutes each (I don’t buy the notion that Jaëll foreshadowed minimalism). Ditto the set of pieces each depicting a rainy day.

Accompanied by a book of expert essays, the performances on this three-CD set are all attentive, loving and technically superb, with recorded sound to match. But Jaëll’s misguided ideas, a certain clashing, acerbic quality in the harmonic language that is quite unpleasant, and the lack of convincing substance in the musical ideas and their subsequent working out, all leave one wondering whether this fabulous production was really worth the trouble.

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Jessica Duchen