Classical Music

Classical home listening: African American Voices with the RSNO; Clare Hammond plays Montgeroult | Classical music

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The three composers on the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s African American Voices (Linn), conducted by the orchestra’s assistant conductor, South Carolina-born Kellen Gray, are enjoying a vigorous revival. William Grant Still (1895-1978), George Walker (1922-2018) and William Levi Dawson (1899-1990) combined classical training with the Black vernacular music of their upbringing. Dawson played as a jazz trombonist (with Louis Armstrong and others); his melodic Negro Folk Symphony (1934) bursts with powerful orchestral gesture and taut rhythms.

Working in Black musical theatre and collaborating with George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman, Still brings a blues-jazz sonority to his Symphony No 1 “Afro American” (1931), both exuberant and atmospheric. Walker, from the next generation, studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. His short, contrapuntal Lyric for Strings (1946, revised 1990), intense and elegiac, was written to commemorate his once enslaved grandmother. The RSNO honours this repertoire with playing of buoyancy and dexterity.


Being a female composer, and getting your music performed, was fraught with difficulties until all too recently. To be an aristocrat too added a further complication. A few women broke free, such as Hélène-Antoinette-Marie de Nervo de Montgeroult (1764-1836), eight years younger than Mozart. The British pianist Clare Hammond, on Hélène de Montgeroult: Etudes (BIS), has recorded 29 of the composer’s studies, showing that this miniature form has artistic worth, as well as the pedagogic value the name implies.

A French virtuoso fortepianist, Montgeroult became a professor at the new Paris Conservatoire in 1795 and wrote her own piano method. In these études, she forged the way for Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, and Clara Schumann. Often songlike in the right hand, with turbulent, pulsating left hand accompaniments (as in No 107 in D minor), Montgeroult encapsulates the musical journey from classical to romantic, her artistic compass firmly pointing forward.

Celebrating its centenary in a concert conducted by Eva Ollikainen, the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic performs a new commission from Erland Cooper, with soprano Héloïse Werner as soloist. Radio 3 in Concert, Friday, 7.30pm.

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