GMCD 7317 – Piano Music by Amy Beach (1867-1944), Vol. 1, The Early Works
Kirsten Johnson – piano
Charming miniatures which show a good deal of promise of greater things …
MusicWeb International Thursday December 04 2008
I first came across Amy Beach’s music some 15 years ago when I bought a box set with the intriguing title of Chamber Works by Women Composers. It included Amy Beach’s trio for piano, violin and cello, op.150 (Vox Box 11 58452) together with music by Clara Schumann, Germaine Tailleferre, Lili Boulanger, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Teresa Carreño and Cecile Chaminade. Since then I’ve added Amy Beach’s Symphony in E Minor, Op.32 (Gaelic) (Chandos CHAN 8958) and have reviewed her Quartet in One Movement for MusicWeb International on a disc that included chamber music by Ethel Smyth and the fascinatingly named Susan Spain-Dunk (Lorelt LNT114). I have found all her music to be highly inventive and deeply affecting.
This disc is the first of a series to include all Beach’s piano works and I look forward to hearing the rest. The works on this first offering are all early ones – Mamma’s Waltz was composed in her head away from the piano at the tender age of just 4 and one of 4 waltzes she composed that same summer of 1872! – and the latest works were composed when she was 27.
Amy Marcey Cheney was born on 5 September 1867 in New Hampshire, USA and began showing exceptional musical promise at a very early age and had a blossoming career as a concert pianist which was curtailed by her mother who didn’t want her tour and later on by her husband who would not allow her to accept payment for playing but did allow her to play at charity concerts. This kind of behaviour on the part of parents and husbands is an oft-repeated scenario in respect of women in the arts but who can blame Amy Beach’s mother for not wanting her young daughter to tour, despite offers from several concert managers, at the age of 8! However, this attitude did not prevent her mother allowing her to study piano first with Ernst Perabo, a teacher at the New England Conservatory of Music and later with Carl Baermann, a Liszt pupil. Her mother also permitted her to make her debut at 16 playing Ignaz Moscheles’ Concerto No.2 in G Minor. Her marriage in 1885 to H.H.A. Beach, a respected Boston physician 24 years her senior, meant any hope of a professional career as a pianist was permanently ended but Dr. Beach did encourage her to compose as had her own father. Though Amy considered herself first and foremost a pianist her musical energy was channelled into composing and she left a considerable legacy of compositions including many songs and choral works, a good deal of chamber music, piano works and an opera.
The works on this disc show a highly inventive mind which, at a very young age, was capable of producing charming miniatures which showed a good deal of promise of greater things to come. I found the pieces on this record delightful and, while they could hardly be described as great music constitute an interesting musical record of a lesser known composer whose development continued throughout her life. Her works are programmed to this day and should become better known by music-lovers everywhere. On this disc they are played by American pianist Kirsten Johnson who, I presume will be recording the rest of Beach’s oeuvre for piano. She plays the pieces with conviction and obviously enjoys bringing unknown works before the public. Her other discs include works by Hermann Goetz and Heinrich Schulz-Beuthen and two discs of Albanian Piano music.
This is a disc for those who want to hear how a pianist-composer developed from the earliest years. I await the ensuing discs with interest and anticipation.
Fanfare July/August 2008
Kirsten Johnson empathizes completely with the refined femininity of Amy Beach’s exquisite, fragrantly decorated piano pieces, and the album is enhanced by her notes, lucidly and insightfully written from the pianist’s point of view. Johnson reveals, for instance, that Amy’s husband would not allow her to accept payment for her public performances, feeling that it was his place to provide the family income. How times have changed! This, the first installment of Gußild’s projected Beach Piano Music series, concentrates on the works of her early years, from her first simple creation, Mamma’s Waltz , composed in her head at the age of four and written down for her by her mother, to her compositions of 1894, a particularly fertile year.
The collection includes four other junior pieces written between 1872 and 1878 (Amy was born in 1867) demonstrating her evolving confidence and talent: Menuetto (a precursor of her Menuet italien ), Romanza, and Air and Variations , all written when she was just 10 in 1877; the relatively complex Air and Variations being the most substantial and accomplished. Her charming Petite valse was written in the following year. The capricious and rhapsodic Valse caprice was premiered by Beach herself in 1889, and championed by Joseph Hofmann who favored it as an encore. In 1894 came the remarkable, nine-and-a-half minute Ballade , based on her own song, O my luve is like a red, red rose to Robert Burns’s verses. This lovely piece builds into a fiery, tempestuous climax, most passionately conveyed by Johnson at the poet’s declaration of everlasting love: “I will love thee still, my dear/While the sands of life shall run.” Bal masque, also composed in 1894, demonstrates Beach’s love and affinity for the Viennese waltz tradition.
The remaining items in this concert are grouped into three sets. Sketches was written after Amy’s marriage to Henry Harris Aubrey Beach in 1885, and published in 1892 as her op. 15. Influences of Schumann, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Liszt are all discernible. This set comprises four pieces, each of which is preceded by a line of poetry, written in French. “In Autumn” has the superscription, “Yellowed leaves are scattered on the grass”; it is a little Schubert-like and it nicely evokes leaves lightly falling and then swirling as breezes intensify. The ballet-like “Phantoms,” with “All the fragile flowers die as soon as they are born,” has a mazurka-like feel about it. The intensely romantic “Dreaming,” with its quotation “You speak to me from the depths of a dream,” has an obsessive triplet figuration and speaks of tender yearning. Finally, “Fire-flies,” headed by “To be born with the spring, to die with the roses,” nicely evokes the quickly flitting creatures and was played by Busoni, Hofmann, and Moritz Rosenthal. Six pedagogical pieces comprise Children’s Carnival from the fruitful year, 1894. They are all charming and accessible miniatures based on the Italian commedia dell’arte characters. “Promenade” introduces the characters. “Columbine” is a coy, demure little sketch; “Pantalon” is spry and a little pompous; “Pierrot and Pierrette” is a gentle waltz for the lovers, Pierrot constant, Columbine fickle; “Secrets” is a lovely, haunting andantino; and “Harlequin,” the acrobat of the troupe, is given an energetic dance full of leaps. The album concludes with the three more sophisticated pieces that make up Trois morceaux caractéristiques (once again, 1894). “Barcorolle” is an exquisite boat song, lilting and romantic, reaching a passionate climax. “Menuet italien” expands Beach’s earlier Menuetto, adding refinement and decorative complexity. Finally, “Dance des fleurs” is a graceful evocation of flowers nodding and twirling in the breeze.
With this new Guild release, Kirsten Johnson’s survey of Amy Beach’s piano music begins auspiciously. Joanne Polk’s three Arabesque albums of Beach’s piano music are also a firm recommendation.
MusicWeb International Wednesday August 06 2008
This is the first volume in a new survey of Amy Beach’s piano music. Expatriate American pianist Kirsten Johnson now lives in England and has written her own fine notes. In this volume she pitches in with some Beach juvenilia and adds two rather more substantial works, Children’s Carnival Op.25 and Trois morceaux caractéristiques Op.28 both written in 1894.
Given that much here is of slight musical value things depend largely on the imaginative and sympathetic approach of the interpreter. Johnson proves a valuable guide in the series of rather generic waltz and dance pieces that Beach wrote when she was an ambitious ten year old. There’s even Mama’s Waltz written when the composer was five! Elsewhere the picture postcard and Schumann-flecked influences are never far away.
It’s when we come to the more substantial fare that we can get a meatier grip on things, even when – as in the case of Sketches Op.15 – the demands are not bone-shaking, though they are allusively Schumannesque. The obvious comparison here is with the multi-volume Arabesque set played by Joanne Polk and you should consider my review of the three volumes that constitute the solo piano works in the light of this Guild entrant. The two competing discs have in any case somewhat complementary takes. Guild’s recorded sound is brighter and more immediate, Arabesque’s is rather more veiled and recessed; the Guild is less warm but has greater clarity. So speaking of the Sketches we find Johnson is the more forthright in In Autumn whilst Polk plays more capriciously with rubati. Polk is decidedly quicker in Dreaming, keeping the left hand figures more mobile whilst Johnson establishes the mood suggested by the title more obviously. Conversely in something like the vivacious Valse Caprice we find that it’s Johnson who takes this in an intoxicating arc, whilst Polk holds back, establishing a sense of “raising the curtain” in the introduction and then taking a less showy route throughout. The Chopinesque ardour of the Op.6 Ballade is taken finely by both players. – very little to choose between them, other than recorded sound.
In the Trois morceaux caractéristiques Johnson is consistently quicker than Polk. Johnson takes the more incisive direction, Polk the more languid and withdrawn – especially true of the opening Barcarolle. In the main though Johnson is less inclined to rubati than Polk, preferring a brisker, crisper approach.
Johnson has certainly opened her account with characterful and vital performances. Engaging, clarified and buoyant they make a good foil for the more introspective profile evinced by Polk.