Anyone with a strong interest in classical music will have been aware that 8th March was International Women’s Day. BBC Radio 3 took the opportunity to broadcast a number of pieces by female composers, Trinity Laban College announced the end of all-male programmes and several orchestras performed forgotten works by female composers. Laurence Equilbey’s Insula Orchestra gave one such programme at the Barbican, offering a rare chance to hear Louise Farrenc’s Symphony no. 3 in G minor, composed in 1847.

Laurence Equilbey conducts Insula Orchestra © Mark Allan | Barbican
Laurence Equilbey conducts Insula Orchestra
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Farrenc is a fascinating example of how time and place can determine the value of a composer’s work; not only did she have to overcome the typical 19th-century prejudices – though astonishingly both her parents and husband seem to have been entirely supportive of her career – to learn music and obtain equal pay rights as a professor at the Paris Conservatoire, but she was also writing in a form that was disdained in Paris. It was held in France, where opera dominated the musical landscape, that the symphony was Germanic and that alone was enough to deter interest in composing and attending symphonic works. Little wonder then that a female composer who never ventured into opera faded into obscurity. There will inevitably be an argument as to the merits of works resurrected with gender bias in mind; in Farrenc’s case, there’s enough in her Third Symphony to merit the Lazarus treatment, though it did not come across as a complete masterpiece. Much of it is reminiscent of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, the latter astonishingly so at times, and there’s no sense of ground being broken. Yet at the same time, there’s a clear identity, a unique compositional voice that makes the work interesting and worth hearing.

One of the most interesting feature is the strong writing for woodwind, mercilessly exposing individuals within the section as well as the group as a whole. Insula’s players rose to the challenge with a performance at once technically deft and colourful, at their best in the second and fourth movements. Equilbey’s grip on balance was crucial in bringing out the dynamics between woodwinds and the rest of the orchestra, the strings never in danger of dominating and producing a more nuanced sound as result. Equilbey trimmed any fat with tight pacing and forceful contributions from the timpani gave the performance an added kick. In the fourth movement, the string approaches stood out for the gutsiness of their attack and there were some beautifully varnished moments from the double basses. Equilbey has made a valid case for this symphony and it is likely that we will be hearing Farrenc’s name a little more often in London.

Alexandra Corunova, Natalie Clein and Elisabeth Brauß with Insula Orchestra © Mark Allan | Barbican
Alexandra Corunova, Natalie Clein and Elisabeth Brauß with Insula Orchestra
© Mark Allan | Barbican

The symphony was preceded by a performance of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, offered on the basis that the two works would provide a revisionist approach to our views of 19th-century music and on the grounds that Beethoven the democrat would have approved of the fight for parity. Violinist Alexandra Conunova, pianist Elisabeth Brauß and cellist Natalie Clein joined Equilbey on stage in a warm and coherent reading. Conunova stood out for the sheer brightness of tone and immaculate control, bringing a real sense of bloom to her instrument; Clein seemed to lack punch in the first movement, but after a strong opening in the second, seemed to take off. Brauß' playing was subtle, but always distinct, a pellucid performance that carressed the other soloists and brought a feeling of unity to their performance. Equilbey drew shapely phrasing from Insula which contrasted nicely with the grainy texture of much of the playing, really bringing an edge to the performance and provoking much thought on a piece that is so well-known.

A well-known face from the Proms was in the audience; let us hope that we see Equilbey and the Insula Orchestra more frequently in the future.

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