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Exceptional interesting 5 stars review in Fanfare

December 4, 2023

Jerry Dubins

 UPHEAVAL  Janne Fredens (vc); Søren Rastogi (pn)  OUR 6220683 (60:53) Reviewed from a WAV download: 44.1 kHz/16-bit

BOSMANS Cello Sonata in a. PEJAČEVIĆ Cello Sonata in e, op. 35. LILY BOULANGER Nocturne. NADIA BOULANGER Trois pieces

They say that to err is human, but whoever said that hadn’t encountered the epic erring of Jerry Dubins. Why bother with minor misjudgments when you can sweep on to the grand fallacy? To wit: In 46:3, I reviewed an album of works by Henriëtte Bosmans (1895–1952), a Dutch virtuoso pianist and composer, half-Jewish on her mother’s side, who managed to survive (barely) the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
My response to what I heard of her music on the disc was not positive. The pieces intended to showcase her talents as a composer struck me as being monochrome gray and as drab as the woolen uniforms of the Dutch army, leading me to conclude that but for one exception—the first movement of her violin sonata, composed in 1918—the woman had practically not a musical bone in her body.
Bosmans’s output is not overly large, and what there is of it falls roughly into two periods: 1) the years during and immediately after the First World War (approximately 1914–24), consisting mainly of solo piano pieces; and 2) the years during and after the Nazi era and Second World War (approximately the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s), consisting largely of songs for voice and piano. There are, however, two handfuls of larger works, one of them concertante works for a solo instrument and orchestra—concertos for piano, violin, and two for cello—composed during the 1920s, and several chamber works that date from approximately the same timeframe.
By and large, however, Bosmans’s second phase of composing during the Nazi occupation wasn’t so much a matter of choice as it was a necessity for survival. Her successful career as a concert pianist was curtailed, her performances banned, and her means of earning a living severely limited. Composing became a way for her to keep a roof over her head and put food on her table.
One of the most extensive and in-depth websites devoted to Bosmans and her works can be found at In addition to a lengthy and detailed biography, the site also contains a complete listing and dating of her known works.
Bosmans’s music for cello—two full-scale concertos for cello and orchestra (1922 and 1923), and the sonata for cello and piano (1919) on the present disc, plus a number of smaller pieces—have special significance in her output. For a number of years Bosmans was involved in an openly same-sex relationship with Dutch cellist and conductor, Frieda Belinfante, and these works were composed at her request and specifically for her performance.
When I suggested at the beginning of this review that I had erred grievously in my judgment of Henriëtte Bosmans’s abilities as a composer, it only took the opening strains of her Cello Sonata in A Minor to change my opinion and set me straight. This is one of those works that commands instant attention with its gripping—I’m tempted to say, grim—march-like statement. This is music of a dark and very powerful character, and its technical demands, including double stopping and taking the cello up to practically off the top end of the fingerboard, tell me that Belinfante (1904–1995), the cellist Bosmans was writing for, must have been one of the great virtuoso cellists of the 20th century.
How come she’s not right up there in the Who’s Who of cello luminaries? Her bio tells us that she emigrated to the U.S. in 1947, settled in Laguna Beach, California, and in 1954 established the Orange County Philharmonic Orchestra. As conductor of the ensemble, she led performances that featured prominent soloists of the day, such as Lili Kraus, Leonard Pennario, and Mischa Elman. Belinfante also appeared with the Orange County players and other orchestras in her role as cello soloist. The orchestra was disbanded in 1962 due to contract and financial disputes, but in a 1994 interview, Belinfante expressed the view that gossip about her sexual orientation had also played a part in her removal.
None of her pre-war recorded radio performances survive, and, according to a footnoted source in her bio, “only the very last recording of her American career is preserved in the archives.” It’s not in the Fanfare archive, I can tell you that, but for anyone who wants to track it down, here’s the full information:
“Angelus Records LP #WR4976. The album consists of the Haydn D-Major Cello Concerto with Belinfante and the OCPO conducted by Felix Slatkin, the Brahms Akademische Festouverture with the OCPO conducted by Belinfante, and a movement of the Brahms Sonata in E minor, op. 38, for cello and piano with Belinfante and pianist Lucille Boger. Although the recording is not dated, it was most likely made in 1959.”
So much for Belinfante. Let us return to Bosmans’s Cello Sonata where we left it. The second movement takes on the character, somewhat, of a scherzo, though its tempo is a relaxed Un poco allegretto. The mood is still on the dark side, but in its harmony and melodic gestures, the music is strongly influenced by Brahms.
The third movement is the expected Adagio, but what’s unexpected and highly unusual is that it lasts for only a little over three minutes. Tonally vague, Impressionistic-sounding, sweeping arpeggiated chords give one the feeling that this brief intermezzo is more of an introduction to the finale than it is a proper movement in and of itself.
The finale begins with a wild stomping dance worthy of Bartók in its rhythmic ferocity. But this soon gives way to a quieter, sorrowful theme. There are inspired moments of gorgeous Romantic melody and harmony throughout Bosmans’s sonata, as well as sudden upwellings of intense drama. The cello is allowed no pass when it comes to virtuosic demands, but the piano part sounds every bit as difficult—no surprise there, considering Bosmans’s card-carrying credentials as a concert pianist.
In describing the prevailing ethos, atmosphere, or character of this music, I have to reiterate that it inhabits realms of dark and unhappy emotions. So too does Elgar’s Cello Concerto, also composed in 1919. It’s understandable in light of the devastation left behind by the Great War. But where Elgar grieves over the tragedy and loss, Bosmans rages. The finale to her Cello Sonata turns into a danse macabre in a musical idiom more modernistic than anything contemplated by Elgar.
My initial opinion of Bosmans has been radically changed as a result of this sonata. The woman could compose!
Ever since we were introduced to Hungarian-born, Croatian composer Dora Pejačević (1885–1923) with a recording of her Symphony in F Minor and Phantasie Concertante for Piano and Orchestra back in 35:2, cpo, in particular, has shown a fair degree of follow-up interest in her, as I initially thought they would, and should, given her fairly extensive catalog of works and their quality. By now, female composers who challenged societal conventions by writing symphonies, large-scale chamber and orchestral works, and even an opera or two, are no longer looked upon as having been born with some sort of aberrant gene. You could say that anyone endowed with the talent to compose breathtakingly beautiful music was born with an uncommon gene, and as far as I know, no one has tried deprogramming them or sending them to conversion therapy.
Pejačević composed her one and only cello sonata in 1913 and revised it two years later, and yes, it has its breathtakingly beautiful moments. Its opening strains are especially striking. The cello enters with one of those thrusting, striving themes that came to Romantic composers seemingly naturally and inexhaustibly. The mood of the music, as befitting such a work in E Minor, is sad in a sort of reflective way, though it does rise to moments of heated passion. It’s not dark, angry, and menacing, however, as Bosmans’s sonata is. I suspect that Brahms’s Cello Sonata No. 1, also in E Minor, had some influence on Pejačević’s sonata.
The Scherzo that follows generally takes the Mendelssohn scherzo as its model, but it’s not particularly faery-like or flighty. Moreover, its mid- or trio section, takes a page out of Brahms’s playbook in changing tempo and mood and in reshaping the movement’s opening motif into a new theme.
For the Adagio movement that follows, Pejačević doesn’t disappoint. She gives us the heart-throbbing threnody we missed in the Bosmans. Pejačević makes up for it with music of elegiac beauty in one of those movements you wish could go on forever.
Minor key changes to major as the sun comes out for the finale. There’s a hint every now and then of Brahms’s autumnal nostalgia, but for the most part, the movement ambles along in an easygoing and warm-hearted spirit. An interesting feature of this sonata is that all four movements are of almost identical length, differing by just a few seconds in each case.
As I listen to this sonata, I can’t help but ask how it is possible that a piece of music this beautiful continues to exist at the fringes of the repertoire. Cellists constantly complain about their limited repertoire. Well, why aren’t they standing in a queue three-deep to play this sonata by Dora Pejačević? Only one previous recording of the work has entered the Fanfare archive, and it was reviewed by me in 35:3. I said it then, and I say it again now, “I believe this sonata is an important and very beautiful addition to the cello repertoire.
The remaining contents of this very special program are provided by the sisters Boulanger—Lili, the younger of the two (1893–1918), and Nadia (1887–1979). By all accounts, Lili was the one gifted by the gods with the natural musical talent. In 1913, at the age of 19, she became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome prize in composition. During Lili’s tragically short life—she died just short of 25th birthday—she composed profusely, was strongly influenced by Debussy, and was at work on an opera based on Maeterlinck’s Princesse Maleine when she died.
Here in a transcription for cello and piano, we have Lili Boulanger’s lovely, all-too-short Nocturne. Originally composed for violin and piano, the piece was written in 1911 and is said to make use of Debussy’s whole-tone scale harmonies, though not to a degree that you’d actually notice. The melody line traces delicate arabesques amid the perfumery of the harmonic background, and cadential progressions seem to conform to the conventions of tonal resolution. In other words, it’s a beautifully evocative, atmospheric piece, but one that’s none too modernistic for its time.
Nadia Boulanger was by no means without talent, but by her own admission and self-acceptance, her calling in life was not to be that of a composer. In the immortal line of G. B. Shaw, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” After leaving the Paris Conservatory, Nadia came to the conclusion that she had no particular talent as a composer, and threw herself, mind, body, and soul into teaching, becoming one of the most influential teachers in all of music history.
The list of her students reads like a rollcall of many of the most famous and iimportant composers, performing artists, and conductors of the 20th century. And she didn’t judge where they were coming from musically, working with John Eliot Gardiner, a then rising star in the field of authentic Baroque practice, to the most avant-garde of the Modernists, Grażyna Bacewicz, Elliott Carter, and Philip Glass. She didn’t close her door to song writer, arranger, and film and television producer, Quincy Jones, or to tango maven, Astor Piazzolla; nor did she try to remake in her image what a modern 20th-century composer should be, the likes of Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, who wanted to write music in a “common-man,” Americana vein. All and more flocked to Nadia Boulanger’s flat in Paris and took inspiration from her, each to his or her own needs.
If number of recordings is a reliable measure of popularity, then Nadia’s Three Pieces for Cello and Piano is her most popular work, for it is most oft-recorded, with several entries in the Fanfare archive, including one in transcription for bassoon. Oddly, unless I missed it, there doesn’t seem to be an entry for a recording of the work performed on the instrument for which it was originally written, which was organ. Boulanger herself transcribed the three miniatures for cello and piano in 1914.
The first two adhere fairly closely to the same style, atmosphere, and mood, while the third number shocks the listener out of his or her comfort zone with a marauder from another time and place. describes the three pieces thusly:
“The opening piece is a delicate, mysterious Moderato. The middle work, Sans vitesse e l’aise, resembles a peaceful lament, while the finale, Vite et nerveusement rythmé, is an edgy, almost frenetic affair resembling the hurly burly of modern life.”
I must confess to being a bit baffled by the title of this album, “Upheaval.” The album note explains it as follows: “First, it presents four compositions for cello and piano written by female composers from the first part of the 20th century, challenging the cultural norms of the day, and secondly, the title “Upheaval,” also refers to the tumultuous period around the First World War.”
Well, yes, these are works written by female composers in the first two decades of the 20th century, by which time female composers were hardly a novelty. As far back as 1857, another female composer, and a French one at that, Louise Farrenc, composed a magnificent Cello Sonata in B Major, not to mention three symphonies. And, wait for it ... the German female composer, Emilie Mayer (1812–1883) wrote 11 (!), count them, cello sonatas.
Second, yes, the period around the First World War was certainly a tumultuous time, but musically, there are certainly works one could choose from this period that represent real “upheaval.” Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring of 1913 would be one example. Or, if you want another cello sonata as an example, try Anton Webern’s two-minute-long, atomized Cello Sonata of 1914.
Granted, these examples aren’t by female composers, but it’s works like these that expanded our understanding of what the word “music” encompasses. There is nothing approaching that in the works by the composers on this disc. In the cello sonatas by Bosmans and Pejačević, we’re dealing with late Romantic works that happen to have been written in the 20th century. The Romantic ethos and aesthetic didn’t cease to exist with the turn of the century. Romantic music is still being written today. As for the cello pieces by the Boulanger sisters, the style would be best referred to as post-Impressionism.
In spite of that bit of album titling incongruity, I must commend artists Janne Fredens, cello, and Søren Rastogi, piano, for their extraordinary musicianship and artistic dedication in devoting their time and effort to bring us this wonderful disc of rarely heard—in the case of the Bosmans and Pejačević—sonatas for cello and piano.
Janne Fredens is a renowned cellist in Denmark and has toured throughout the world, including Australia, Great Britain, Japan, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Israel, Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Belgium, and the U.S. She was invited to make her Carnegie Hall debut by Isaac Stern. Fredens stands out as a dedicated chamber music partner, collaborating with various ensembles both domestically and internationally. She is especially celebrated for her work with the Jalina Trio, which has garnered significant international acclaim.
As noted earlier, both the Bosmans and Pejačević sonatas make technical demands on the instrument and the player that allow for nothing less than the most wide-ranging technique and musically intuitive artistry. On both counts, Janne Fredens fulfills those requirements and then some.
No less challenging are the Bosmans and Pejačević sonatas for the pianist, and in Søren Rastogi, Fredens has found the ideal partner. Rastogi is one of the most sought-after pianists in Denmark. With a repertoire spanning Mozart, Schumann, Stravinsky, Bernstein, and Gershwin, Rastogi has performed with conductors such as Thomas Søndergaard, Douglas Bostock, and Christian Mandeál. In 2023, Søren achieved a significant milestone when he served as soloist in the first recording of Paul von Klenau’s piano concerto with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Hans Graf. This achievement underscores Rastogi’s dedication to exploring lesser-known musical treasures.
To any and all cellists out there, the Bosmans and Pejačević sonatas are works you should take note of, and to all listeners and lovers of the cello, this is an album that belongs on your shelf, preferably close to whatever device you listen to music on these days, as a reminder to play it often. Jerry Dubins

Five stars: Extraordinary music, exceptional playing.

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