ELLES—Marina Thibeault

The new ATMA Classics CD ELLES seems apt for a month when there seems to be a great deal of music, opera & theatre created by women, celebrating female creativity, and perhaps extra noticeable with last week’s International Women’s Day on March 8th. There was Stacey Dunlop’s Lonely Child Project, Sook-Yin Lee’s Unsafe at the Berkeley Street Theatre, School Girls at Buddies, Revisor choreographed by Crystal Pite.  And upcoming we get Next Wave Workshop from Musique 3 Femmes (and Tapestry), and the Toronto City Opera’s La traviata. And those are just the recent/current ones I’m aware of.

So I’ve been listening incessantly to ELLES.


It’s what I do when I get a new CD. First time through it’s a voyage through terra incognita and the sense of wonder at the newness I’m encountering. Gradually it resolves into a series of expectations. It’s rare that I want to listen again after the 2nd time through, but this one is different on a number of fronts.

Sometimes recordings are organized in such a way that the journey from beginning to end makes you want to do it again. I think that’s at least part of it.

The title is a signal of course, although I’m not sure who is to be understood in this plural pronoun. It could be the performers, violist Marina Thibeault & pianist Marie-Ève Scarfone, two women with roots in Québec. It could be the repertoire on the CD: all from female composers.

Or perhaps all of the above?

If I asked you to name some female composers you’d probably include at least a couple of these names in your list, as they’re among the best known. An additional filter is the instruments of course, as it’s all either music for viola & piano or for solo viola.

  • Clara Schumann: Three romances Op 22
  • Nadia Boulanger: Three pieces for cello & piano, arranged for viola & piano
  • Fanny Hensel (aka Fanny Mendelssohn): Dämmrung senkte sich von oben
  • Rebecca Clarke: Sonata for viola & piano
  • Lillian Fuchs: Sonata Pastorale (unaccompanied viola)
  • Anna Pidgorna: The Child Bringer of Light for viola solo

If this were programmed by a man I suspect it would be organized chronologically, whereas this is more purely musical, or dare I say it, poetic, pursuing an emotional logic.
Before I address that, I want to talk about my first experience of the CD, plunging in without really looking too closely at the liner notes. Sometimes when I go to a concert I’ve read up in advance to be fully prepared; sometimes I make no preparation and immerse myself in the pure sonic experience. With a recording I seek the luxury of both, getting to blindly listen and then after looking at the titles & notes, listening again. My first experience of Thibeault’s viola was very disorienting. It’s possible this is simply my ignorance, the disorientation of someone who knows nothing or very little.

But the first time through I was overwhelmed by the tone of this viola, at times thinking I was listening to a cello. Now indeed at least two of these pieces were originally cello pieces transcribed for viola. But that doesn’t explain a rich sound that I’ve never heard coming from a viola.  Before you enter into any consideration of interpretation you’re already in rarefied air, a sound unlike anything I’ve heard before

So I must mention that there’s a Sinfonia Toronto concert coming up Friday April 5th that I will miss because I am already over-committed (I said yes to something each of Thursday, Friday & Saturday!). Thibeault will play the Canadian Premiere of a viola concerto by Peteris Vasks. The beautiful tone I heard on this CD should sound especially rich in the intimate confines of the Glenn Gould Studio.  Oh well. If you should go please let me know what you thought.

[Back to the CD]

We begin in a curiously familiar place with the Schumann. Clara Schumann’s Op 22 romances sound a lot like Robert Schumann’s music.

Amazing! These are magnificent pieces working in many of the same ways you might recognize from Robert Schumann’s compositions. The influence they must have had upon one another is palpable, and perhaps the very quintessence of “the romantic”.

There are some interesting points of divergence that might be due to the female performers, or maybe come from the score itself. I think if it were Robert Schumann’s music played by men, that the piano part would be heavier & less subtle. But recalling the original way that Barbara Hannigan approached Berg in a TSO concert a few weeks ago, maybe this is the gender talking: and in a good way.

Boulanger is not someone I know, and after hearing her three pieces I’m planning to explore further. The last movement is especially thrilling with a bravura piano part that brings out the best in Scarfone.

Hensel gives us the itinerary for a tiny two minute trip back into the dreamiest depths of the romantic movement, a stunning melodic arc that I didn’t want to end. But it did. (another reason to let the CD play over…)

Rebecca Clarke? I didn’t know her work but I will have to explore further after hearing this glorious sonata. Impetuoso for the first movement brings us decisively into the 20th century. But we’re still tonal, modal & passionate. This is a true duet, Scarfone taking the stage at times, at other times more in support of Thibeault’s soaring line.

The second movement Vivace has all the playfulness of a scherzo. I’m more reminded of the middle movement of Saint-Saëns 2nd piano concerto, that goes back and forth between gossamer lightness and a slower melody (the closest analogy I could think of…not quite the same though). What’s really amazing about this is how I’m reminded of a question I posed a couple of weeks ago, namely how does a composer get people to play their works? The short answer is to write something fun, something you hear and say “wow I want to play that!” That’s what I felt when I heard the Saint-Saëns 2nd concerto middle movement, a stunning ear-worm if ever there was one. This movement too has staying power, amazing textures & sounds.  And Clarke’s last page does sound a lot like Saint-Saëns’ conclusion.

And then her third movement is a soulful Adagio beginning with a piano statement, answered by something mysterious and poignant in the viola, questioning and questing for something, growing and accelerating. From a deceptively simple beginning this piece really shows the gender thing most eloquently in a testosterone free zone, ending without bombast or falseness.

And from there, we’re in alto solo territory for the next four cuts: the three movement Sonata Pastorale of Lillian Fuchs, and the fascinating closing piece from Ana Pidgorna.

There’s a great deal of variety in the three-movement Sonata Pastorale. At times it’s very thoughtful & sombre, but the last movement breaks free for an energetic Allegro. This kind of writing totally suits the viola, a melancholy probing under the surface that you wouldn’t expect from a violin.  Thibeault is fully in control of this piece, taking us for a wild ride to finish.

And to close the CD, the Pidgorna, which is unlike anything that came before, barely recognizable as the same instrument. Everything that’s been established to this point –the solidity of tone & tonality—is now up for grabs in this electrifying finale. I’m glad I listened to it the first time without recourse to the notes, as its playfulness is unmistakable. The rhetorical segmentation reminds me of a one-woman show, an attempt to do a soliloquy without words. It helps that Thibeault is so decisive, sometimes attacking powerfully, sometimes more gently.

Here’s a live performance of The Child, Bringer of Light.

… making me want to go back to the beginning of the CD, to hear the Schumann again.

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