Amy Beach, Complete Piano Music, CD of the Week, Essential Classics with Sarah Walker, BBC Radio 3, October 14-18, 2014 “This set of CDs is a huge achievement….quite magnificent playing.”
International Record Review, April 2009
Amy Beach, the most illustrious female composer to emerge from the USA, was a child prodigy from New Hampshire. Reportedly, at the age of one she was able to memorize 40 melodies and was competently writing waltzes by the age of four. She was largely self-taught and her compositions include a good deal of piano music alongside larger-scale orchestral and choral works. She was an active educationalist who toured extensively in Europe as well as America and was a fervent exponent of Classical and Romantic repertoire as well as her own piano works.
Kirsten Johnson comments in the booklet notes that the Variations on Balkan Themes of 1904 came in response to a collection of folk melodies brought back from missionaries to Bulgaria. Beach’s prodigious capacities allowed her to score not only four of these from memory but to complete the entire work – which lasts close to half an hour – in little more than a week. She successfully encapsulated the melodies from which the variations are constructed within a highly accessible and tonal language that frequently draws sustenance from figurations owing much to Chopin and Liszt. Yet the music amounts to more than mere parody, for Beach is often capable of revealing a fresh and personal voice: poetic, stirring, virtuosic and highly chromatic. The Variations are superbly executed by Johnson, the pianist controlling the climactic flourishes so as to retain a focus on the all-important melodic thread. This is sensitive playing, the seventh variation (‘ Quasi Fantasia’) enlivened by a delightfully crisp attack and the ‘Marcia funerale’ given a dark, brooding resonance. Before the reprise of the main theme there is a ‘Cadenza’, which holds more than a passing allusion to the extravagant pianistic exploits of Tchaikovsky and Liszt.
I enjoyed the five-movement Children’s Album, a setting of dances ranging from the minuet to the polka, which (surprisingly uncommonly for pieces bearing such a description) can work nicely in a child’s hands. The Serenade, a transcription of Richard Strauss’s song Standchen, turns out to be an exceptionally faithful rendering of the original, the climax none the less acquiring a new and expansive treatment. This is a really effective work, made all the more sparkling by Johnson’ s lightness of touch.
Beach’s fascination for folk melodies continues in the ‘Scottish Legend’, Op. 54 No. 1, a charmingly wistful little piece that raises a smile (there again, I’m no more Scottish than Beach). The ‘Gavotte fantastique’, Op. 54 No. 2 has shades of Rachmaninov, while the work she called Eskimos brings together several Inuit melodies. This is a delightful collection, full of naive character and interest, especially ‘The Returning Hunter’ and ‘With Dog-Teams’, beautifully rendered by Johnson. There is much to enjoy in this album, although one is left with the feeling that while much of the material is rather good, it frequently falls somewhat short of ‘great’. Beach’s mastery of the instrument is abundantly clear, however, the more florid writing demonstrating her own extraordinary facility, and the voicing of the more lavishly constructed chords finely judged.
The composer cannot have anticipated a more attentive champion for her piano music than Kirsten Johnson, although in her notes I would have welcomed a little more of her personal insight into the musical mind of the composer. Mark Tanner
Music Web International 17 April 2009
Recording of the Year 2009
Amy Marcy Cheney Beach only swam into my ken recently, and I’m so glad she did. Like her compatriot and contemporary Charles Edward Ives she hailed from New England, where she made quite an impact as a child prodigy. She gave her first public performance at seven and, largely self-taught, went on to become both a performer and a composer of some distinction. Unfortunately for such an independent-minded and talented young woman her husband insisted she limit her performances to just one a year; the good news is that she was then able to devote more time to composition, becoming America’s first female composer of large-scale orchestral works, such as the Symphony No. 2 in E minor ‘Gaelic’ (1896) (on Naxos, Bridge and Chandos).
Given that she was a piano prodigy it’s hardly surprising that much of Beach’s output was written for the instrument. Inexplicably, recordings of her works are still few and far between, so Guild must be congratulated for taking on this series with American-born pianist Kirsten Johnson. My colleague Jonathan Woolf welcomed the first volume of early works – see review – and now we have the second, covering the period 1897-1907. The first piece, Op. 60, is based on Balkan folk melodies Beach picked up from two missionaries to Bulgaria. An unusual source of inspiration, perhaps, but these tunes form the basis of a most rewarding set of variations. The opening Adagio malincolico is surely Chopinesque, but surely there’s a hint of something much more individual in the music’s harmonic shifts and twists.
Johnson, who has an interest in music from this part of the world – she has recorded two discs of Albanian music for Guild – see review 1 and review 2 – also provides very informative liner-notes. As I’ve said before, informed comments and analyses are most useful when it comes to less familiar repertoire; if only all recording companies took the same view. As for the pieces in Op. 60 – ranging from a minute to four-and-a-half in length – they cover a wide variety of moods. Variation II is particularly forthright, masculine even, in its weight and reach. Contrast that with the finely wrought Variation IV and you’ll soon appreciate the cut of this composer’s jib.
St George’s, Bristol, makes a fine venue for this recording; the piano sounds warm and detailed throughout, with no hint of distracting brightness or jangle. But what I admire most is Johnson’s natural, flowing style, which picks up so much colour and detail along the way. Those simple arpeggios and trills in Variation V are finely graded yet so full of feeling. If you’re looking for rough Bartókian rusticity in these tunes you’re in the wrong place. It seems that Beach merely uses these melodies as springboards for a series of highly expressive inventions. The repeated rhythms and whirls of the Allegro all’ Ongroise and the Marcia funerale may seem a little understated but Johnson handles this music with wonderful poise and restraint. They are miniatures, after all, and I’m delighted that she isn’t tempted to put them in large, ornate frames.
Variation VII is one of the loveliest pieces here, combining weight and delicacy with a certain rhapsodic quality. Even in the broader, more declamatory moments – Variation VIII for instance – Johnson’s sense of musical perspective ensures these pieces are scaled to perfection. The sombre Funeral March has a measured tread, the pianist very much in control of the music’s steady climb to a dynamic peak and its gentle descent to the valley below. Similarly, in the Cadenza Johnson finds a good balance between the music’s outward virtuosity and its inner voices. Just listen to the bell-like close to this section and the gentle but expansive reprise of the opening theme. This really is delectable music, superbly played.
In the great tradition of children’s pieces – Schumann and Debussy spring to mind – Beach’s Children’s Corner artfully combines an element of grown-up gravitas with child-like charm. Witness the earnest little Minuet, with its fleeting glimpses of something more wistful; Johnson phrasing the Gavotte with grace and a real feeling for the music’s delicate proportions. Ditto the music-box-like-tinkle of the Waltz, whose gentle rhythms are so naturally done. A March and Polka round off the suite, the latter combining crisp inner detail with plenty of outward sparkle.
Beach’s transcription of the Richard Strauss song Ständchen is sensitively done, the flourishes capturing the swirl of the orchestral original, Johnson conveying the music’s surging character as well. Very accomplished writing indeed, played with orchestral amplitude. Scottish Legend is more considered, yet it retains all the ease and fluency of Beach’s earlier pieces. As for the Gavotte fantastique it fuses pointillist dabs with broader swathes of colour, yet it sounds wonderfully nimble in Johnson’s hands. The more programmatic Eskimos – based on Inuit melodies – is sparer of texture but no less atmospheric for that. The plain harmonies of Arctic Night give the piece a somewhat desolate feel; The Returning Hunter is much brighter and more rhythmic and Exiles has a restless, yearning air to it.
As with much we’ve heard thus far there is an economy of style in Eskimos, an emotional restraint, that is most impressive. It’s the kind of writing that can so easily underwhelm unless it’s played with utter conviction. No quibbles on that score, with Johnson despatching the animated final section with her customary elan. The disc ends with an exquisitely shaped little Moderato, the perfect sign-off to an enchanting collection.
Like Cortez gazing down from that peak in Darien new listeners will surely marvel at the more compact, but no less revelatory, landscape unveiled here. Any niggles or no-nos? Absolutely none. This is heart-warming music played with rare grace and character; indeed, it could very well be one of my discs of the year.