"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.