"falls under Hammond's fingers with a thoughtful beauty" — Geoff Brown
Two possible surprises lurk in my album of the week. One is that the pianist Clare Hammond, noted for her muscular power, can also touch the keys as if stroking a Siamese cat. The bigger surprise may come from the music: 29 études by Hélène de Montgeroult, a noblewoman who supposedly avoided jail during the French Revolution by moving her judges to tears after improvising variations on La Marseillaise. Professorship at the newly formed Paris Conservatoire followed.
Listening to the subtle simplicity of this music (first rediscovered in the 1990s), I almost shed a tear myself. Conceived as technical exercises in playing with crossed hands and other niceties, these pieces reveal an imagination and vitality that easily lift them onto a higher plane.
For music published in 1816 and chiefly written some time before, it’s also adventurous, tied to classical forms yet with a romantic spirit recalling later figures like Mendelssohn and Schumann. Above all, this is music of very high quality; and it falls under Hammond’s fingers with a thoughtful beauty that should make many new friends both for herself and for the composer she so excellently serves.
"unnervingly astonishing" — Richard Cox
If you’ve heard the name of French pianist-composer Hélène de Montgeroult (1764 – 1836) at all before now, it’s likely because BBC Radio 3 devoted its ‘Composer of the Week’ slot to her earlier this year. Recordings of her music are rare, those devoted to it rarer still: British pianist Clare Hammond’s new disc of 29 Études from Montgeroult’s Cours complet pour l’enseignement du forte-piano (1816) is only the third in the current catalogue. And yet here we have music that, in the words of Montgeroult expert Jérôme Dorival, provides the ‘missing link between Mozart and Chopin’. As this BIS recording proves, far from being the normal sales puff, this claim turns out to be spot on. Although Montgeroult was less than a decade younger than Mozart, her Études – composed between 1788 and 1812 – are strikingly prescient of the Romanticism of Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann and even Brahms.
How to explain this astonishing neglect? Montgeroult had the misfortune to be born not just a woman in an age when only men were supposed to be composers, but also an aristocrat (her maiden name was Hélène de Nervo) at a time when young ladies did nothing so vulgar as perform in public. Her own playing was restricted to the salons of the nobility, where it was appreciated by a tiny group of connoisseurs. In 1784 she married the Marquis de Montgeroult, but the early 1790s were not a good time for members of the French aristocracy. While attempting to flee to Naples in 1793, the couple were captured by Austrian soldiers, and the Marquis died in custody. On her return to France, Montgeroult only escaped an even worse fate at the hands of the Committee for Public Safety by improvising a set of variations on the Marseillaise: such a talent could prove useful to the new regime, and she was appointed the first woman professor of piano at the Paris Conservatoire.
Montgeroult’s tenure at the Conservatoire was brief – she may have left because she was snubbed in favour of a less gifted male colleague to write the official piano course for the institution. Her own Cours complet, published in three volumes, is encyclopaedic in its scope, with a vast number of purely technical exercises (scales, arpeggios and the like), all provided with extensive commentaries, and culminating in an astonishing series of 114 Études. Surviving copies of the Cours complet number only 24 (that by her pupil J.B. Cramer numbers 100 times more), and only since the 1990s – almost entirely thanks to the devoted efforts of Jérôme Dorival – has her output at last become better known to a select group of musicians and, more recently, the wider music-loving public.
Clare Hammond was introduced to Montgeroult’s music as recently as 2019, and she used the opportunity given by the Covid lockdowns to make an intensive study of the composer’s music, carefully searching for the ideal balance between the singing tone which Montgeroult so valued (again anticipating Chopin) and the richness of harmonic shading and heightened expression. There are indications that both the Mendelssohns and the Schumanns may have come into contact with Montgeroult’s teaching legacy during their own years of study, and Hammond’s selection of 29 Études – roughly a quarter of the total collection – contains plenty of examples of their composer’s extraordinary inventiveness and depth of expression. Some of these pieces are intended to focus on strengthening the capability of the left or right hand in particular, others more generally with achieving tonal suppleness and dexterity, yet none come across as mere exercises – a tribute not just to Montgeroult’s visionary talent, but to Hammond’s own careful honing in repertoire that is still scarcely explored by most pianists.
Dip into this disc at any point and you are likely to be amazed, as we were, by the extraordinary richness and variety of expression. The later Études in particular contain music of remarkable maturity, such as No.106 in B major, anticipating Brahms’s late chorale preludes, and the nocturne-like No.110 in A major. There are pieces of astonishing fleetness (nos. 53, 55, 97 and 107), and others of quite remarkable tenderness and emotional depth. No.34 in F major is particularly charming, as is a variant on the same motif in No.36, and the listener is eased into the selection with the gently billowing waves of No.37 in G major. Time and again, you’ll find yourself pinching yourself to realise that these pieces are not better known. Among our own particular favourites are the Schubertian expressivity and textures of No.62 in E flat and No.97 in G minor. But above all, it is the marriage of true cantabile tone and a heightened proto-Romantic sensibility that makes this collection – and Hammond’s performances – so unnervingly astonishing. No doubt at some point soon someone will record the complete collection of Montgeroult’s Études, but it is unlikely that they will match, let alone surpass, Clare Hammond’s achievement on this marvellously recorded new album from BIS. At a time when any minor scraps by great or neglected composers are hailed as discoveries, Hélène de Montgeroult is the real deal: absolutely essential listening, and not just for pianophiles.
"Montgeroult encapsulates the musical journey from classical to romantic, her artistic compass firmly pointing forward." — Fiona Maddocks
Being a female composer, and getting your music performed, was fraught with difficulties until all too recently. To be an aristocrat too added a further complication. A few women broke free, such as Hélène-Antoinette-Marie de Nervo de Montgeroult (1764-1836), eight years younger than Mozart. The British pianist Clare Hammond, on Hélène de Montgeroult: Etudes (BIS), has recorded 29 of the composer’s studies, showing that this miniature form has artistic worth, as well as the pedagogic value the name implies.
A French virtuoso fortepianist, Montgeroult became a professor at the new Paris Conservatoire in 1795 and wrote her own piano method. In these études, she forged the way for Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, and Clara Schumann. Often songlike in the right hand, with turbulent, pulsating left hand accompaniments (as in No 107 in D minor), Montgeroult encapsulates the musical journey from classical to romantic, her artistic compass firmly pointing forward.
"enchantingly light and sensitive interpretations" — Rémy Franck
Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836) is known for her sonatas, which belong to the late classical and early romantic periods and are anything but traditional. No less bold and forward-looking are her Etudes from the Cours Compet pour l’enseignement du forte-piano in three volumes published in 1816. In 1795, the pianist had become the first professor at the newly founded Conservatoire de Paris. With a salary of 2500 livres per year, she was reportedly among the best-paid teachers there.
But she also went down in history as a phenomenal pianist. Baron Louis de Trémont (1779-1852) said that her whole talent was aimed at the expression and the art cantabile. And the pianist of this recording, the British Clare Hammond, says that her music is qualitatively comparable to that of Mendelssohn and Schumann, but at the same time stylistically very advanced. No wonder her 114 Etudes have been associated with the music of Schubert, Chopin and even Brahms.
Clare Hammond accordingly places great emphasis on expression and cantabile, which are the main features of her enchantingly light and sensitive interpretations. And in so doing she would certainly have satisfied the composer who once said, "If singing well is the greatest difficulty on all instruments, one might almost despair of overcoming it on the Forte-Piano, which, deprived of the faculty of sustaining sounds, has given everything when touched; but feeling makes one ingenious, and the need to express what one feels can create resources that escape the mechanic."
"The real glory, though, is Hammond’s devotion to this music and her immaculate pianism. She is a pianist in a thousand." — Simon Mundy
There are some discs that go instantly onto the pile of those one wants to listen to again and again, happily, on repeat. At first sight it is surprising that this is one of them.
Until the last few years Hélène de Montgeroult was a composer who had spent a century and a half in obscurity, perhaps because the late 19th and early 20th century musical establishment were wrapped in defensive misogyny, perhaps because she did not write a big collection of symphonies. For whatever reason, her music, covering the period from Haydn to Chopin, was neglected, even though she was the first woman to be Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire. That in itself is more than remarkable for she was close to being guillotined during the Terror as the widow of an aristocratic diplomat. She is said to have survived because she had the wit to demonstrate her pianistic virtuosity by improvising on the Marseillaise for the judges.
She became a venerated institution at the Conservatoire, teaching pianists how to take control of the instrument as it evolved from the fortepiano through to the modern versions, like the Pleyels and Erards, that gradually standardised into something we would recognise as modern. In 1816 she formalised her method into her three volume Complete Course for Education on the Fortepiano, a publication that it is thought Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann knew as they were learning. Given that she and Chopin were in Paris at the same time it seems highly likely that he was familiar with her work too.
There are 114 études alone in the books, of which Clare Hammond presents 29 here. They are much more than exercises, pointing the way to Chopin’s works in the genre and, as Hammond rightly notes, coming very close to the sound world of John Field. The pieces are fastidious, elegant and testing – designed to stretch the player’s technique while teaching how to maintain a musical line, however hard the finger work. Each has a description of the particular quality Mongeroult is looking for the student to achieve. It will not be a shock to find that Clare Hammond passes these tests with consummate ease. She has just the right measure of relentless definition leavened by musical sensitivity to lift the music miles above its pedagogic function. Most of the pieces are only a couple of minutes long but two last over double that. No. 38 in A minor is written ‘to bring the song together well with the accompaniment’ and is a gorgeous tune that could come straight out of Felix and Fanny’s Songs Without Words. No. 89 in A `at minor looks to work on the diffculty of sustaining tone and offers an essay in gentle Romantic melancholy within a tight classical structure: wonderful writing.
The recording, made just before Christmas 2021 by the BIS team using the Nimbus studio at Wyastone, in Monmouthshire, is beautifully clear without being claustrophobic. The real glory, though, is Hammond’s devotion to this music and her immaculate pianism. She is a pianist in a thousand and we can be grateful that there are 85 more Montgeroult études to record, quite apart from the rest of her work. It makes me believe too that Hammond may be maturing into a top rank interpreter of the early 19th century repertoire as well as the fearsome contemporary works with which she has been most associated up to now. More soon, please!