TAILLEFERRE: La musique de Germaine Tailleferre, Volume II

Josephine Gandolfi (piano); Leta Miller (flute); Susan C. Brown (violin); The California Parallèle Ensemble/Nicole A. Paiement.
Helicon HE 1048 TT: 61:46.
UPC/EAN: 060550104825

Music as escape. Unlike most, I began my serious classical-music listening with Modern music (roughly 1910-1950), so I heard the music of Germaine Tailleferre early and about a decade before the Women's Movement appeared. I never thought of her as a Woman Composer, but as a composer, part of the French group Les Six (with Auric, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, and, briefly, Durey). Still, I didn't know a lot about her or, since it was pre-feminism, about the obstacles she faced. I thought of her as a solid minor composer, with a pleasant surface but not much depth. Listening to this disc has convinced me she's much better than that.

Tailleferre became one of the Twenties' symbols of the Modern Woman (she had a great bob), along with Coco Chanel. Her father refused to pay for her musical studies, and when she was able, she changed her surname from Taillefesse to Tailleferre to tell him what she thought of him. She attended Georges Caussade's fugue class (Caussade is the unsung great teacher of French composers) alongside such future stars as Honegger, Milhaud, and Auric, and the four became friends. The fugue class allowed her -- one of the few women -- to study composition with Charles Koechlin (she also studied orchestration privately with Ravel), and she graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with firsts in accompaniment, harmony, and fugue.

She enjoyed her greatest professional success in the Twenties, with the Princesse Edmond de Polignac (n�e Winnaretta Singer, heir to the sewing machine fortune) as her patron. However, she married disastrously, twice. She divorced her first husband, the prominent caricaturist and severe depressive Ralph Blaine. He shot himself a few years later. She next married an abusive lawyer. They separated after about a year and divorced only decades later. She had little income and was forced to accept essentially musical piecework. She did many quickie film scores, music for stage plays, and even TV shows. Her major compositions often failed to receive hearings. Critics, when they thought of her at all, brushed her off as a "lady watercolourist.

Tailleferre's music doesn't scale epic peaks. It clings to a modest neoclassical aesthetic. Of all the members of Les Six, she stayed truest to the original goals of the group. She works much of the same emotional neighborhood as Erik Satie, who called her his "musical daughter." All this worked against her in the Thirties, when other French composers, taking off from Stravinsky's monumental Oedipus Rex, left jewelry-making for climbing the Alps. Nevertheless, as this disc shows, with its program of early and late, her language deepened, without inflation.

Short works first. The piano pieces belong to what I'd call the "salon" category or for home use. The Impromptu, the earliest of those here (1912), shows obvious debts to Faurï and early Debussy, but one shouldn't dismiss its wonderful intermediate-level piano writing, assured structure, and beauty. The Valse lente and the Pastorale in A-flat both come from 1928. The harmony has become more individual and the textures leaner. All three share wistfulness and a bit of regret. In the Larghetto of 1946, we get a deepening of these emotions and a slightly more astringent harmonic language. It reminds me a bit of Poulenc's sacred music in its melodic shapes. The Pastorale for violin and piano (1942) reminds me slightly of Faurï's, but with simpler textures and a to-the-bone, very Gallic melancholy. She wrote it in occupied France.

I must say, the Piano Concerto of 1924 is a flat-out masterpiece. Albert Cortot gave its American premiere in Philadelphia under the direction of Stokowski. Of the roughly contemporary French concerti, I can compare it to only the Ravels, and I like it better than the Stravinsky. Certainly, the efforts of her colleagues in Les Six produced no similar score as strong, except perhaps the Poulenc Aubade. The architectural solidity and amazing contrapuntal skill stand out, as well as the tunefulness. In the first movement, she likes to set several themes against each other simultaneously. The movement reminds me a bit of a great athlete, not merely a successful competitor, but someone whose motions are beautiful to watch, like Björn Borg or Willie Mays. The second movement -- a slow, gravely beautiful aria -- through her counterpoint chops, becomes an elegant conversation among the piano and the orchestral soloists. She doesn't waste a note. The finale raises the bar on the first movement. To me, it seems the essence of joy. She also ups her contrapuntal game, since the movement takes the form of a double fugue -- not one fugal subject, but two developed simultaneously. However, at the same time, the entire concerto feels not "learned," but spontaneous. It follows the ideals of the early days of Les Six: modesty, clarity, and appeal to popular taste. If you want Brahms, you know where to find him.

Tailleferre spent most of the war years in the States, where her music had never made much traction, and wrote very little. Mainly, she taught. Afterwards, she returned to France, where she began to compose larger works again, including 10 operas, 2 ballets, and a haystack of concert, chamber, and film and TV scores. Most of the music wasn't published until after she died. Her style had gone out of fashion, and although she toyed in at least one work with serial technique, she quickly returned to her old self. Nevertheless, she extended her idiom and her emotional range. Much like Poulenc, for example, she didn't abandon her basic voice or aesthetic. The Concertino for flute, piano, and chamber orchestra (1953) -- for a long time considered lost -- was reconstructed, thanks to the discovery of a recorded radio performance (Rampal on flute, and Veyron-Lecroix on piano), by the French band composer and conductor Desir� Dondeyne, a good friend of hers.

The work runs to four movements: Pastorale, Intermezzo, Nocturne, and Rondo. The Pastorale displays the same astonishing contrapuntal brilliance as the piano concerto, as flute and piano take up the musical material simultaneously. The longest movement, a slowly allegretto Intermezzo, perhaps influenced by Milhaud, is touched with Latin-American rhythms, perhaps Tailleferre's way of saying hello to her old colleague. The Nocturne, like most of its brethren, meditates. The movement takes the form of a duet between soloists, with the flute on lead, against a slow rhythmic ostinato in the orchestra. The Rondo dances like a happy pup and ends like a severely foreshortened version of Poulenc's Concerto for 2 Pianos (1932) -- again, maybe greetings to an old friend. After all, of Les Six, she was probably closest to those two.

In all of this, Tailleferre equally emphasizes each soloist and resists the temptation to favor the flute, with the piano reduced to accompanying -- harder than it sounds. Again, this results from her mastery of counterpoint.

The conductor on this CD, Nicole Paiement, had to unearth the Partita for flute, oboe, clarinet, and strings (1962), since it had "disappeared" in the archives of a German publisher. In three movements, it runs to roughly 12 minutes, with the opener taking up close to half. The wind colors dominate. Tailleferre's usual sunniness has vanished. The first movement treads gravely, with harmonies reminiscent of the sterner neoclassical Stravinsky. The second movement continues that general mood, with even more astringent harmonies, although we get a slightly brighter section toward the end before gloom returns. The finale picks up the tempo without lightening the ambience. Indeed, given the condensed proportions of the score and our expectations of Tailleferre, this movement comes across as angry. Nevertheless, its exquisite workmanship and very French mesure keep these emotions elegant, rather than messy or self-indulgent. Another brief masterpiece, it exemplifies Tailleferre's late extension of her language.

Paiement does terrific work as impresario and conductor. The ensemble playing is lovely. My only reservation sticks to the pianist in the solo piano pieces. Showing a deceptive simplicity, they pose little technical difficulty to a professional, but they demand an interpretive depth, like the easier pieces of Faurï and Chopin. I find Gandolfi too matter-of-fact, with less legato in her touch than I want. Nevertheless, this disc recasts Tailleferre as a major composer and heroic figure.

S.G.S. (May 2022)