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The A-Z of Classical Music #3 - Cécile Chamanade - Callirhoë: Ballet Symphonique

A twenty-six part series highlighting the works and recordings that every collector needs to own.

(composer) Cécile Chaminade

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(title) Callirhoë: Ballet Symphonique (1888)

(recommended version) Dutton Epoch CDLX 7339 (SACD)

Whenever the question arises, of why there are so few female composers in the mainstream classical canon, the story of Cecile Chaminade (1857-1944) is never far from being retold.A gifted musician from childhood, her parents fiercely blocked her attempts to study music, and that despite their neighbors including Bizet, and her sister marrying Moritz Moszkowski.

Chaminade persevered, however; ignoring her father’s insistence that this was no career for a well-bred young woman and, by her mid-twenties, she was regarded among France’s most popular and prolific composers, well on her way to completing some 400 works of greater or lesser duration.

Indeed, it’s ironic that it took the death of her father to halt the flood.Needing now to maintain the family’s income, Chaminade turned instead to salon music, touring both Europe and the US, playing for royalty… doing everything, in fact, bar continuing her career as a classical composer.

The best of her works, then, date from the earliest part of her life, with 1888’s Callirhoë a case in point. Indeed, it seems incredible that this release should be the ballet’s world premiere recording, and we are fortunate that it has been handled by both an accomplished orchestra and a thoughtful label.To experience Callirhoë in such stunning fidelity, and such well-wrought surround, is surely some compensation for having been deprived of hearing it for all this time.

It’s a beautiful piece, one befitting the 200+ performances that the ballet played during the 1880-1890s.The story is based, extremely loosely, on the classical Greek tale of the same name, and while we can only imagine the sets and choreography that accompanied the music, the liners at least outline Elzéard Rougier’s original scenario.The thunderstorm sequence, “Orage,” is just one of several especially effective pieces, while “Danse Orientale” is as seductive as any piece led by the goddess Venus ought to be.

There are no words to explain just how welcome this release is; only the hope that, with it now back on open display, Callirhoë might yet come to the attention of one of the major ballets.

The disc concludes with Chaminade’s Concertstück for piano and orchestra, a fifteen minute tour-de-force that remained in the composer’s repertoire deep into her touring career, and is envisioned now by Victor Sangiorgio.As powerful as Callirhoë is pastoral, it is not necessarily the best companion for the opera, in terms of musical mood, but any Chaminade is better than none.