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Mathilde de ROTHSCHILD (1832-1924)
Songs
see end of review for track listing
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano)
Adrian Farmer (piano)
rec. Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, 1-3 August and 29-31 August 2012
NIMBUS NI 5903/4 [70.16 + 70.41] 

One must inevitably feel sorry for the lot of women composers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If they were related by blood or marriage to more famous composers their music was regarded as an adjunct to that of their male relatives and sometimes even published under their names. Such was the fate of Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler - who was even forbidden to compose after her marriage to Gustav. Others, who did not have the cachet of a famous name, were often simply ignored, and only the most talented - Augusta Holmès or Louise Farrenc, both French-based - managed to get their works performed and then often on a small scale. Yet others - such as Mathilde Malibran or Pauline Viardot - made their living as performers, only venturing into composition as a sideline. It was not until the advent of Ethel Smyth in London at the height of the suffragette movement that it was ever admitted that women could write on the grandest of scales. Even then Smyth had to exert all her power and influence to get her opera The Wreckers staged by the young Thomas Beecham.
 
Then there was yet another category: women whose compositions were published and performed, but who had to rely on their own personal incomes or those of their husbands in order to survive at all. Their compositional activities were treated as a private hobby which could be indulged at their own expense, but not otherwise taken seriously. Amy Beach, for example, was only allowed to emerge from the shadows towards the end of her life, well into the twentieth century. Baroness Mathilde de Rothschild comes into this latter category. She was a member of the famous German banking family, and she was regarded by her family as a talented pianist; this in the days when playing the piano was de rigueur for refined young ladies. When she married in 1849 her husband insisted that she should abide by his strict orthodox Jewish values which restricted her subsequent social activities. In her early years she was at least allowed to study seriously, including lessons with Chopin. From the 1860s onwards quite a number of her songs had been published including Si vous n’avez rien a me dire which was recorded by Adelina Patti. Oddly enough this song is omitted from this 2 CD conspectus of her work. Although she lived with her husband in Frankfurt, she also had a thriving career as a writer of French chansons, and one of these CDs is devoted to songs in German while the other is in French.
 
The booklet note by Francesco Izzo freely acknowledges that among the words that can be used to describe Rothschild’s output are “varied”, “eclectic” and “cosmopolitan”. Cosmopolitan, certainly: there is a wide range of poets set here, both in German and French, and some major poems at that. There is also a definite distinction in style between the French and German settings. Rothschild is clearly well acquainted with songs in not only these languages but also in Italian … and possibly English via the Mendelssohnian school. The influences of all these composers testifies to her eclectic tastes, although the music always remains firmly rooted in the early nineteenth century with no hint that Wagner and Debussy were revolutionising the setting of the German and French languages during the last fifty years of the composer’s life.
 
This is the real problem with the music of Mathilde de Rothschild. It is all just a little too polite. She understands the poems she is setting. She knows well how to set them in a manner which enhances their meaning. She is adept at providing an atmospheric accompaniment that will set them off properly. All that said, the spark of individuality, of the willingness to take a risk, is missing in a manner that is decidedly not the case with Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Louise Farrenc or Augusta Holmès in their music. One cannot imagine that if one or another of these songs were published under the name of Felix Mendelssohn or Robert Schumann - as apparently happened with the two first examples cited - they would have passed muster for long. These are not just salon or parlour songs designed for amateurs. Some of them demand a technique which expects performance by professionals. Neither are they designed to tax the interpretative powers of their singers.
 
One must however admire the determination of Charlotte de Rothschild, the composer’s descendant, to rehabilitate her ancestor’s music, describing her in a personal note in the booklet as “a truly gifted musician and a composer worthy of greater recognition”. She has personally collected and selected the items featured in this survey. There are a number of unpublished songs here including the most substantial work present, the setting of Sylvain Blet’s La voix qui dit je t’aime. The presentation is really handsome; apart from the booklet containing the essays by Charlotte de Rothschild and Francesco Izzo, we are given a second booklet containing the complete texts and translations of all the songs included here. It is derived from the gigantic online collection of songs texts by the indefatigable Emily Ezust whose stupendous labours in this field are so valuable in remedying the defects in the documentation supplied by so many other companies.
 
Charlotte de Rothschild has recorded a few songs by her ancestor before, but this compendious survey at last enables us to get a real impression of Mathilde’s music. She sings well, if sometimes a little tremulously, and her close acquaintance with the songs both as performer and editor pays dividends. Most of the songs are strophic, but the composer has a nice line in slightly sly piano accompaniments. These impart an attractive surface patina if no real sense of depth although Vous avez bien faire et beau dire (CD 2, track 10 - the title is given confusingly as Obstination in the translation booklet) has a nice dying fall in the final bars. The longest single song here, the unpublished setting of Blet to which I have already referred, with its gently rocking accompaniment, sets three stanzas in what sounds like an identical manner although the text rings some fairly drastic changes of mood.
 
The piano pieces, well played by Adrian Farmer, serve to break up the succession of songs on both the discs, and clearly show the influence of Chopin. Again one looks in vain for a sense of individuality or independence. They are generally good imitations of the style of a greater composer, but no more. The Mazurka however has a nicely wry inflection which is not unworthy of Chopin, if without that composer’s wide-ranging sense of tonality. Clearly Mathilde de Rothschild was possessed of the inner demon that haunts all composers and demands that they give expression to their thoughts through the medium of their music; she would hardly have persevered with her writing otherwise. However the sheer sense of driven mania is missing. Perhaps she was just a little too comfortable; that is certainly the impression left by her music, where even when she is expressing feelings of anguish she does so in the most restrained of manners. One would perhaps have welcomed some indication as to the dates when these songs were written, which would have served to place them in a historical context. Most of them sound as though they date from early in the composer’s life, but that may simply be an impression created by the style of the music.  

Paul Corfield Godfrey   

See also review by Gary Higginson

Track listing
German Lieder
Seven songs (1876)[12.02]
Seven songs (1897) [11.31]
Twelve songs (c1885-90)[21.09]
Das flotte Herz [2.57]
O sage nicht! [1.31]
Der Komet [2.01]
So war die Sonne scheinet [1.39]
Die Gletcher leuchten [1.56]
Komm! Geh’ mit mir in Waldesgrun [2.16]
Am See [2.05]
French chansons
Bluette [1.49]
Appelle-moi ton âme [2.58]
Près du lilas [2.25]
Coquetterie [2.49]
C’etait en Avril [2.18]
Romance Magyar [2.30]
Vous avez beau faire en beau dire [3.31]
Les papillons [2.16]
Le rossignol [2.04]
Si mes vers avaient des ailes [2.38]
Charmeuse [4.04]
Danziam [2.43]
Souvenir [2.16]
Si j’etais rayon [2.03]
Je n’ose pas [2.16]
Enfant rêve encore [2.53]
Chanson du pêcheur [3.41]
Tristesse [2.22]
La vallon natal [3.59]
Unpublished songs
Auf den Bergen [1.45]
Seitdem du mich verlassen [2.00]
Parle-moi [2.23]
Quand vous me montrez [2.49]
La voix qui dit je t’aime [5.32]
Piano music
Feuillets d’album Nos 1-3 and 6 [11.16]
Mazurka [1.42]
Waltz [1.24]

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