Fiona Kelly [flute], Ramon Ortega Quero [oboe], Annelien Van Wauwe [clarinet], Ron Schaaper [horn], Bram van Sambeek [bassoon], Philippe Cassard [piano]
Louise Farrenc [1804-1875]
Sextet for piano and winds in C minor Op.40 
2. Andante sostenuto
3. Allegro vivace
Louise Farrenc must have been an extraordinary woman, virtuosa pianist, composer and teacher. She was the only female professor at the Paris Conservatoire in the entire century, teaching there for 30 years and fighting for and eventually receiving equal pay with her male colleagues – after a triumphant performance of her Nonet led by Joseph Joachim. Equally impressive was her ability not only to compose both chamber works and symphonies, but to get them performed in an opera-mad city.
She was artistically well connected; her family the Dumonts had been receiving artistic patronage from the French throne dating back to the reign of the Sun King. Her father’s sculpture crowns the monument to the Bastille. So although she was the first of her family to become a professional musician she was assured of their support, enabling her to study with such giants as Moscheles, Hummel and Reicha. She was only eighteen when she married Aristide Farrenc, early music scholar, flautist and later founder of the music publishing firm Éditions Farrenc, meeting him at the many dances held under the lime trees in the Artist’s colony of the Sorbonne. He supported her double career as performer and composer and she gained considerable fame as a concert pianist during the 1830s leading to her appointment as Professor in 1842.
She staked out a compositional path that was more German than French, favouring harmonic interest over virtuosic flourish, contrapuntal development over sentimentality and composing chamber music in a city whose public cared about little other than Opera. The home key of this sextet, C minor, is the key in which Beethoven wrote some of his most characteristic work. The link is unlikely to be accidental for Farrenc was a steadfast admirer of Beethoven and his tumultuous spirit is everywhere in the restless first movement.
Its opening is announced by bold chordal attacks whose dotted rhythm reappears throughout the movement. The piano’s rumbling low-register accompaniment gives an ominous edge to what could be a naïve descending figure on the clarinet and oboe. The progression to E flat major sets the scene for the descending second theme which is soon interrupted by an impatient piano figure with biting grace notes. Following a transition passage in minor keys, the piece finds itself once again clipping along in dotted time to the accompaniment of rippling scalar and arpeggiated piano passages. The resolution to E flat is barely complete when the Farrenc makes a sudden return to C minor for the Da Capo repeat.
The development begins by toying with the second theme, transposing it to a major key. The dotted first theme is then played in close imitation in two parts. The harmony briefly comes to rest at A flat before making a resolute return to C minor for an abbreviated recapitulation and an declamatory close.
Following the riotous first movement, the second is an idyll of charm and ease. It balances the first in line with the classical ideals of form that Farrenc upheld at a time when they were abandoned by many of her contemporaries. The bassoon’s low-key accompaniment relaxes the listener into this movement’s calm metre. The piano’s absence in the introduction makes its solo statement of the theme all the sweeter. With this singing piano melody, Farrenc is at her closest to the sentimental parlour music so popular in the Paris of her time. The many solo passages for piano in this movement achieve an intimate atmosphere while the transparency of the orchestration makes for lightness and grace.
The piano’s babbling accompaniment figure and the right hand’s offbeat fragments set the agitated third movement in motion, while flute and clarinet follow suit with their dialogue. Momentum does not slacken in the second theme with its constantly moving semiquaver accompaniment. The development section is brief as with third movements in the classical style. The momentary diversion to D flat is a playful trick. The movement then races to a close in the fiery spirit of C minor.