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The German pianist Cora Irsen (born 1974) offers a brief, sympathetic portrait of the French pianist Marie Jaëll (1846-1925). In 2015, Irsen also ably recorded Jaëll’s complete works for piano on four CDs for the Querstand label. Both are deserved homages to this composer who, although claimed by France, was Alsatian, and so highly influenced by German culture.

Irsen identifies Jaëll as a ‘forgotten composer and pianist’. Fortunately this is no longer quite true, since the Palazzetto Bru Zane (www.bru-zane.com), an Italian centre for the study of French Romantic music, recently issued a CD and book with high-quality new performances of Jaëll’s works for piano and other instruments. A student of Liszt, Saint-Saëns, and César Franck, Jaëll was indebted stylistically to these predecessors. Her works for solo piano or four hands, such as the resolute Feuillet d’album (Albumblatt, 1871), can charm; larger-scale efforts such as two concertos are not as continuously rewarding, due to predictable passage work. Nor are her shorter works always highly evocative: Promenade matinale, includes among its ‘piano sketches’ a movement entitled ‘Swarm of Flies’, but these are unusually urbane Parisian insects, posh rather than bothersome.

Irsen may overdo the now-fashionable reading of Jaëll’s life and work as overshadowed and obliterated by men. This is, in part, understandable since her husband Alfred Jaëll (1832-1882), an Austrian pianist, was physically vast, crowding her out of portrait photos. After developing tendinitis, Jaëll resourcefully produced teaching guides, advising pupils to practise ‘unimaginably slowly’ to master new works without injury.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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