In recent decades, there has been a welcome revival of interest in the music of Louise Farrenc, not just the chamber music that formed the majority of her output, but in her three symphonies. Johannes Goritzki and Christoph König have recorded them (the latter, with the Solistes Européens, Luxembourg, by far the more successful) and Laurence Equilbey has been an ardent champion with her period instrument Insula Orchestra. This streamed concert at La Seine Musicale paired the First and Third, which legitimately raises the question: why on earth didn’t Farrenc’s symphonies gain a foothold in the repertory of French orchestras?

Laurence Equilbey and Insula Orchestra
© Julien Benhamou

Surely it was because she was a woman? Well, not entirely. Farrenc’s family encouraged her musical ambitions. She studied composition with Anton Reicha and became a well-respected pianist and composer. She was the only professor of piano at the Paris Conservatoire during the entire 19th century, a post she held for over 30 years, and successfully challenged the director Daniel Auber to receive equal pay. Her husband, Aristide, was hugely supportive and together they established Éditions Farrenc, one of France's leading music publishing houses for nearly 40 years.

The biggest handicap to Farrenc’s success was that she was composing at a time when there was next to zero interest in France in the symphony, a form regarded as too “Germanic”. No, if you sought success as a composer in mid-19th-century Paris, you needed to write operas. So Farrenc was bucking the trend by composing her three symphonies when she did, between 1841 and 1847. If she’d been composing in Germany, it could have been a different story. Farrenc’s Symphony no. 1 in C minor was composed at the same time as Felix Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” – indeed, Antonella Manacorda pairs the two in Stockholm later this month – and there’s something Mendelssohnian about Farrenc’s writing: energetic outer movements, lyrical grace in slow movements and, in the twitchy Scherzo of the Third Symphony, a slightly malevolent, elven quality that wouldn’t be out of place in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The brilliant last movement of the G minor Third has a dark ferocity which is reminiscent of Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in the same key.

Laurence Equilbey
© Julien Benhamou

Farrenc wrote highly engaging, spirited music but the two symphonies presented here earned performances that were only intermittently engaging or spirited. Strangely, Equilbey cut repeats in both first movements and in the Third’s Scherzo. Her tempi were on the sluggish side. The slow movement of the Third – marked Adagio cantabile – lacked the singing quality required, and the Trio section of the Scherzo was ponderous. Her conducting style (here without a baton) is busy but lacks clarity.

Period woodwinds and natural horns bring their own tuning hazards and the oboes’ acidic piquancy left a lemony aftertaste far too often. On the plus side, Insula’s gut strings were lithe and sinewy, the trumpets sliced through the orchestral texture like the proverbial knife through butter and Koen Plaetinck was outstanding on timpani, his volcanic eruptions driving Allegros urgently. Occasionally I wondered if you can have too much of a good thing, but no, the volleys in the Third’s finale were thrilling.

Are Farrenc’s symphonies masterpieces? That’s debatable, but they are rewarding and they certainly deserve wider exposure. Performances such as these can only pique the curious listener’s interest.

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