Farrenc Piano Works, Vol 2: ‘The Silence Between the Notes’ Joanne Polk of Steinway & Sons STNS30223

Joanne Polk’s second Steinway & Sons album devoted to piano works by Louise Farrenc matches the previous release’s superb pianism and intelligent programme-building in every way. The opening Mélodie could be mistaken for a Mendelssohn song without words in Polk’s sensitive hands. This sets the stage for all 12 of Farrenc’s Études de dextérité, Op 41, which recently appeared as part of Maria Stratigou’s complete survey of Farrenc’s Études on the Grand Piano label. Naturally, comparisons are in order. While Stratigou’s lightness of touch and slightly dry approach evoke certain precepts of the French piano school, Polk’s warmer, fuller-bodied sound and more fastidious detailing toe a line between German and Slavic traditions. If this sounds simplistic, let me explain what I mean. In the C minor No 1, Stratigou’s rotary triplet figurations sound finger-orientated in their articulation, with a clipped and uniform bite to the right hand’s forte chords. By contrast, Polk shapes the latter into longer, suaver phrases. Stratigou’s double notes in No 2 are crisp and bubbly, while Polk’s resemble a responsive ballet orchestra. In No 5, Stratigou’s scintillating repeated notes are the performance’s raison d’être, while Polk channels primarily musical ends, especially when she brings out important left-hand counter-lines. The rumbling left-hand writing dominates Stratigou’s take on No 7, whereas Polk inflects the right-hand melodies to a greater degree, taking the composer’s espressivo directive to heart.

Composed in 1839, the Op 26 Études in all of the major and minor keys were adopted as required repertoire in 1845 by the Paris Conservatoire, where Farrenc had become their first female piano professor three years earlier. Polk has chosen a selection from this opus that contains both musical and pedagogical value, and again does much more than merely play the notes. She finds appropriate expressive curves in No 13’s imitative writing and takes care to match up No 16’s embellishments evenly and uniformly. Polk digs in to No 19’s rapid chords in a manner that underlines their foreshadowing of Brahms’s keyboard textures.

Like many other composer-pianists of her era, Farrenc contributed to the operatic paraphrase genre, including her Les italiennes triptych, from which Polk previously selected the Cavatina from Bellini’s Norma for her first Farrenc volume. Here she offers the other two, respectively based on Bellini’s La straniera and Carafa’s Berenice. Don’t expect Lisztian fireworks or Thalbergian sleight-ofhand. These are innocuous yet well-crafted charmers, and Polk treats them with total respect yet clearly has fun doing so. I hope the Steinway label and this pianist have more Farrenc up their sleeves.

International Piano