Hélène de Montgeroult - Etudes in Present Arts

"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!