Laurence Equilbey champions the composer Louise Farrenc, a prominent and pioneering figure in 19th century Paris
In recent years Laurence Equilbey, conducting her period-instrument Insula Orchestra, has championed the works of the composer Louise Farrenc, a prominent and pioneering figure on the Parisian music scene in the 19th century. This album presents two of Farrenc’s three symphonies, No. 1 in C minor, first heard in 1845, and No. 3 in G minor, premiered in 1849 in a concert that also included Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
In particular, Equilbey is enthused by what she calls the “immaculate construction” of Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3, its melodies, rhythmic energy and orchestration: “It deserves to be a mainstay of the repertoire,” she says. In March 2018, when she led a performance at London’s Barbican Centre to mark International Women’s Day, the critics agreed: “…The score is so well written that it deserves a prominent place in the history of the early Romantic symphony,” said the Financial Times. “Equilbey and the Insula orchestra gave it a fleet, fiery performance. Their crusading spirit lived up to the day’s billing.” The Daily Telegraph observed that the symphony “was full of engaging inventions, like the urgent irregular rhythms of the first movement, and the scurrying helter-skelter of the Scherzo. Most impressive was the finale, which negotiated a complex but persuasive path between minor key grandeur and major key radiance. It’s clearly a fine piece; all it needs now is to be heard, many times.”
Farrenc was born Louise Dumont in Paris in 1804 into an artistic family. She started learning the piano at the age of six and took lessons from the great virtuosi Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Isaac Moscheles when they visited Paris. At the age of 15 she began to take composition lessons – her most important teacher was the Czech-born Anton Reicha, who spent much of his life in France. In 1821 she married the flautist, musicologist and music publisher Aristide Farrenc, who was supportive of her in her work.
In the course of the 1830s Louise Farrenc established a reputation as a pianist and in the 1840s gained praise for her chamber compositions. In 1842 she made history by becoming a professor at the Paris Conservatoire – the first woman in Europe to fill a senior position of this kind. She went on to spend 30 years at the institution, where she successfully fought to achieve remuneration on an equal level with the male professors. Her daughter, Victorine (born in 1826) became a successful pianist in her own right; when she died at the age of just 32 her mother ceased her public activities as a composer, although she lived until 1875.
Farrenc was, of course, unusual as a female composer who achieved significant recognition, but she was also unusual as a symphonist: at the time, symphonies were not considered the domain of French composers, for whom opera was the Holy Grail. The symphony was seen as a Germanic form, and, in-deed, Farrenc’s works are closer to the spirit of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann than to her French contemporaries. She had to wait four years for the premiere of her Symphony No 1: she completed it in 1841, but it was not until 1845 that it was first performed – in Brussels rather than Paris. The programme also included Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, with Victorine Farrenc as soloist. The first Parisian performance followed a few months later at a benefit concert mounted by Farrenc herself; Victorine appeared at this concert too, playing her mother’s Variations sur un thème du Comte Gallenberg. The critic Henri Blanchard was full of praise: “This interesting musical event has placed Madame Farrenc as a composer who surpasses the capacities of any woman who has written music, rivalling our sex and honouring the country of her birth with an exceptional talent that unites a feeling for melody with the science of sound.”
The premiere of Farrenc’s Symphony No. 2 took place in Paris in January 1846, just a month after its completion – Farrenc again acted as the impresario – but she had to wait longer for the first performance of her Symphony No. 3, which she completed in 1847. Gratifyingly, the 1849 premiere was given by the prestigious Société des concerts du Conservatoire as part of its subscription season. As the Financial Times has written, “Equilbey offers up the best in historically informed performance: energy, lightness, attention to detail,” so no doubt this new recording will convey a suitably infectious sense of occasion.
23 November 2020
Laurence Equilbey makes a powerful case for Carl Maria von Weber’s ground-breaking Der Freischütz
“Beyond being a masterpiece, Der Freischütz marks a starting point as one of the first – if not the first – great German Romantic opera.” In every sense, conductor Laurence Equilbey makes a powerful case for Carl Maria von Weber’s ground-breaking work, premiered in Berlin in 1821 and passionately admired by such figures as Wagner and Berlioz.
Romance, morality, the supernatural and touches of comedy amalgamate in the story of the marksman Max (the ‘freeshooter’ of the opera’s title), who acquires seven magic bullets, forged in the course of a famously spinechilling scene set at midnight in the Wolf’s Glen.
This programme of highlights from Der Freischütz, presented as both a CD and a DVD, was recorded at staged performances at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris in October 2019. Appropriately it opens with the celebrated overture, which provides an exhilarating taste of the opera’s diverse moods and soaring melodies.
In 2019 Equilbey, her Insula Orchestra and Accentus Choir, and a cast led by tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac and soprano Johanni van Oostrum, performed the work in several cities in France and in Germany, the UK and Luxembourg. The staging was in the hands of Clément Debailleul and Raphaël Navarro whose Compagnie 14:20 specialises in ‘nouvelle magie’ – or new magic. Their production made thrilling and innovative use of light, acrobatic movement and video effects. As Le Figaro wrote: “With their ‘magie nouvelle’, Clément Debailleul and Raphaël Navarro have invented an astonishing mode of artistic expression which defies the laws of gravity and leaves the spectator open-mouthed.”
Reviewing the production when it was seen in Ludwigsburg, Opera magazine enthused that “Equilbey’s vibrant conducting was exciting and fresh, a gift to Weber from a true believer.” Laurence Equilbey, pointing out the importance of instrumental colours in Der Freischütz, feels that the period instruments of the Insula Orchestra make a striking difference to the listener’s experience. As befits a piece about hunters, the horn section is prominent in the score. “When played on natural instruments,” she says, “the horn parts can be heard in all their rusticity and majesty – and can acquire a touch of acid when the drama demands it.”
All the singers in the carefully chosen cast were assuming their roles for the first time. “The South African soprano Johanni van Oostrum [as Agathe] is luminous and maidenly, a treasurable singer,” wrote Le Figaro. “Chiara Skerath’s earthier timbre ideally delineates the sassy supporting character [of Ännchen], while Stanislas de Barbeyrac continues his successful move [from Mozart] into Romantic roles … an artist of the first rank evolving in an exciting direction.” As the sinister and persuasive Kaspar, who is in league with the devil, Vladmir Baykov was, in the words of Opera magazine, “ … a commanding presence both physically and vocally”.
The Financial Times summed up the musical qualities of the production in its report on the performance at London’s Barbican Centre. “The central couple were especially noteworthy. Stanislas de Barbeyrac sang Max, the marksman of the title, with just the right amount of strength for Weber’s opera, straddling the elegance of Mozart’s Tamino and the heroism of Wagner’s tenor leads. Johanni van Oostrum brought warmth and lyrical beauty to Agathe’s two contrasting arias ... Laurence Equilbey, the Insula Orchestra’s musical director, provided the pace and a strong sense of direction. The orchestra played well and the French chamber choir Accentus earned its laurels, the men especially in a rousing Huntsmen’s Chorus.”
13 April 2017
Laurence Equilbey's Insula & Accentus ensembles open new Paris concert hall
The all-Mozart Erato debut, in April 2017, of French conductor Laurence Equilbey and her two ensembles, accentus choir and Insula orchestra, is linked with the inauguration of a magnificent new performance venue: La Seine Musicale, which occupies an island in the River Seine just outside Paris.
The highly-anticipated new arts complex in Paris on the île Seguin opens this month with a series of concerts featuring Equilbey at the podium, with her youthful, vibrant period-instrument ensemble Insula as La Seine Musicale's orchestra-in-residence. La Seine Musicale was commissioned by the Conseil Départemental des Hauts-de-Seine, which also supports Insula orchestra.
To coincide with this major cultural event in the French capital, Erato has released Insula's label debut: Mozart's Coronation Mass and Solemn Vespers, with soloists including soprano Sandrine Piau (who also performs at the inauguration of La Seine Musicale).
“These two works are both in the Viennese ‘church trio’ style, without violas, they’re close to each other in time, and the sonority of the instrumentation is exactly the same,” explains Equilbey.
La Seine Musicale appears to float on the River Seine to the south west of the capital at Boulogne Billancourt. The multi-purpose music venue boasts two concert halls and will be at the heart of the cultural revitalisation of the area. As the resident of the 1,150-seat auditorium, Insula orchestra opens the new venue on 22 and 23 April with a programme including Mozart, and with Bertrand Chamayou, Sandrine Piau, Anaïk Morel, Stanislas de Barbeyrac and Florian Sempey among the soloists.
Architects Shigeru Ban and Jean de Gastines have conceived a structure like a boat floating on the Seine using the latest innovations in environmental technology and in sync with the days and the season. An adaptable sail constructed of solar panels moves around the central dome to maximize energy and to provide shade inside the building. The wood and glass dome - evocative of a nest - is repeated on the inside with overlapping wooden panels and suspended honeycomb panels to optimise acoustics. The acoustics have been honed by Nagata Acoustics and Lamoureux, world leaders in their field who recently completed the Philharmonie in Paris. Among the many activities and initiatives finding a home in this major arts complex is French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky's Académie Musicale for talented young musicians.
Insula orchestra will present its concert season at La Seine Musicale and will utilise the facilities for recordings.
Equilbey commented: "Finally the dream becomes a reality. What pride to be able to work, perform and pursue our art in this new location alongside other orchestras.
"At La Seine Musicale, Insula orchestra joins a wide range of acts making music reverberate to the beat of our time. It will be a meeting place for all, even those who don't think Mozart or Beethoven is for them. The rigours of discipline, passion and creativity –the values that guide us at the dawn of this new era - I hope these will echo amongst each one of you."