Reviews

GMCD 7351 – Piano Music by Amy Beach – Vol. 3, The Mature Years

Kirsten Johnson (piano)

To the CD in our Shop


American Record Guide – March/April 2012

Kirsten Johnson, an American living in the United Kingdom since 1994, has spent much of her career finding and performing relatively obscure repertoire. Her second disc of Albanian piano music was one of my inaugural reviews (Guild 7300, Nov/Dec 2006). It is good to hear her again in this, the third of four planned releases of the complete piano music of Amy Beach (1867-1944). The works here are from Beach’s mature years (1907-1924) and use the opus numbers from 65 to 102. Just about every aspect of Beach’s compositional talent is evident here, in a variety of styles. The large-scale concert works (Fantasia Fugata, Prelude and Fugue) are impressive, both for compositional technique and piano virtuosity. Many have used BA- C-H as a motive or basis for a fugue subject. A-B-E-A-C-H seems a natural and logical extension of the idea. Shostakovich used D-SC- H. Beach incorporates folk music (both Native American and Irish American), bird calls (A Hermit Thrush at Eve and at Morn), and evokes visions of nature (From Grandmother’s Garden). From a purely musical standpoint, you hear influences of French Impressionism, German late-romanticism, as well as a healthy helping of good old Americana.
I have a significant interest in and attraction to music by female composers. While I can agree with the (almost exclusively male) critics of female composers that none of the greatest composers of western music has been a female, I compare that line of thinking to one that says there have never been any great female political leaders in the US. There have been some very good political leaders and composers, but the fact is that women were not allowed to actively participate in the political process, nor were they encouraged to compose music until recent times. I ask, how many great women never even got close to a chance to show their abilities and develop to their full potential?
Johnson’s detailed and perceptive booklet essay is a wonderful addition to her piano playing. The recorded sound is quite good, and I now must search out the first two volumes in this series (July/Aug 2008). While waiting for the final installment, I remain grateful to artists such as Johnson for allowing this music to be heard at its best. Her artistry and pianistic skill, as well as her obvious devotion to the material might even sway some of the women composer nay-sayers.
HARRINGTON

Audiophile Audition – November 2011

Audiophile Audition seems to have missed the first two volumes in this series, “The Early Works”, and “The Turn of the Century”, but based on this current (and penultimate) issue, the other two are certainly worth exploring. Amy March Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was one of the most important women composers to have ever lived, and only now is a critical reassessment of her music underway. Part of her obscurity lies in the fact of her devotion to her husband of 25 years, but during the time of this disc (1907-1924) she lost his company with his death in 1910, followed by that of her mother in 1911. During this period Beach travelled to Europe, promoted her music, and came back renewed and refreshed with a sense of commitment to her art. In 1921 she began a long association with the MacDowell Colony, an artists retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire, dedicated to the free and unencumbered cross-discipline of many arts, originally founded by composer Edward MacDowell, and still going strong.
In many ways Beach’s piano music reminds me of Edward MacDowell. There is always a slight whiff of the parlor present, but both of these artists, whose lives did overlap, infused their miniatures with so much more than trite melodies and conventional harmonies. For Beach, her piano music is a series of exquisite tone poems, inextricably wedded to their titles. The beauties of her compositional aptitude are present in the many ways she separates the hands, making each a distinct contributor to the gleaming romantic and impressionistic facades she produces, or the magnificent sense of variety in her technical facility as she constantly searches for new ways of translating verbal and poetic constructs into musical logic. I could listen to this album over and over.
Needless to say, Kirsten Johnson is on top of this music in a big way, and I think if push comes to shove, and even at the higher price, I prefer her series to the other very fine one by Joanne Polk (good as that one is also), for the broad and spaciously-focused sound.
Steven Ritter

MusicWeb International August 2011

After something of a gap we now have the third instalment of Kirsten Johnson’s survey of the delightful piano music of Amy Beach. I’ve reviewed the previous two (vol. 1 vol. 2 vol. 2) and can reiterate how enjoyable it’s been listening to Johnson, and also, once again, to her disc rival and compatriot Joanne Polk on Arabesque (the relevant Arabesque volumes for points of comparison in this case are Z6704 and Z6721 – see review).
This volume selects ‘The Mature Years’, so we approach Beach between roughly 1907 – when she was 40 – and 1923, when she still had another two decades to live. A Hermit Thrush is heard at Eve, and at Morn, the two pieces forming Beach’s Op.92. The impressionistic fleck of the former is a signal of her immersion in Gallic writing. This quality is the more explicitly realised by Polk, whereas Johnson prefers a more beguiling, softer and rounder sound world. The result is that Johnson stresses the romanticism at the music’s heart, whilst Polk seeks out the Debussian. The Hermit Thrush at Eve again sees an interpretative divergence. Polk reveals the harmonic steps more obviously; Johnson prefers a fresher innocence, and is less avian. The music sounds far more modern, proto-Messiaen in small places, with Polk, more dappled with Johnson.
This is a small example of a general truth in these performances. Both are impressive however, in their own way, in the Prelude and Fugue where there is, in any case, somewhat less room for interpretative manoeuvre. Polk, true to form, etches deeper and darker and is more adamantine, and more dramatic. But Johnson takes a more direct route in this Lisztian powerhouse piece, and is good as well. In From Grandmother’s Garden Johnson is once again more limpid in her romanticism, and less assertive tonally and chordally too. She has the confidence to unveil Beach’s miniatures naturally and with unforced generosity. Some, however, will prefer Arabesque who offer a more burnished sound than Guild. 

Where I do definitely prefer Johnson is in her pert and frisky waltz, the third of Les Rêves de Colombine, the earliest of this selection, written in 1907. Polk’s crinolines are a bit starchy here, but with Johnson one senses that this Valse amoureuse is going to end with a clinch on the balcony.

These things are very much a question of personal preference. If you like a bold, sometimes even jarring, stylistically Gallic, harmonically questing (in part) Beach, then go for Polk. If you prefer a more carefree, light-hearted, beautifully deft Beach, go for Johnson. If you can’t decide, go for broke and go for both.
Jonathan Woolf
If you prefer a more carefree, light-hearted, beautifully deft Beach, go for Johnson. 


MusicWeb International – July 2011

RECORDING OF THE MONTH
A number of fine piano recordings have crossed my desk over the years, but few have given me as much pleasure as the second volume of piano music by Amy Beach, most beautifully played by Kirsten Johnson (review). Indeed, I was so smitten that I made it one of my picks of the year for 2009. This might explain why I was so eager to hear this third instalment, a well-filled disc of Beach’s later pieces. Given Johnson’s real affinity for this composer and Guild’s exemplary sonics, this promised to be a cracker.
And, believe me, it is. The commanding octaves of the Fantasia may give way to music of disarming simplicity, but there’s no mistaking the keen intellect at work here, the Fugato combining rigour with rhapsody. There’s more of the latter in the fluttering figures of La Fée de la fontaine, as gossamer-light as one could wish for. There’s a welcome blend of focus and feeling in Johnson’s playing, a cherishable and all-too-rare quality these days. Just listen to the subtle rhythms and gentle inflections of Le Prince gracieux and the amorous little waltz that follows; dynamics are finely controlled, details rendered with a mix of precision and warmth. Sous les étoiles has a classical symmetry and proportion that’s surely Schumannesque. The rollicking rhythms of the harlequin’s dance are superbly articulated.
Thus far this disc is every bit as captivating as its predecessor. The Lotos Isle is infused with a misty languor – better still, a ‘mild-eyed melancholy’ – that resonates in the mind long after the final notes have slipped their moorings and drifted away. The cadences of Tennyson’s poem are well caught with Johnson’s supremely refined touch a joy to hear. This is very different from the stentorian chords that open the Op. 81 Prelude and Fugue, which thunder forth with masculine energy. Yet Beach has an irresistible urge to wander – in the best Romantic tradition – so form is apt to give way to fancy. Yet even here one senses a governing logic or structure, so the music never seems aimless or rhetorical.
Beach was interested in folk music – take her Variations on Balkan Themes, for instance – so it’s no surprise to find that From Blackbird Hills is subtitled ‘Omaha Tribal Dance’. Prancing rhythms co-exist with music of surprising inwardness, yet another of those now familiar juxtapositions that make Beach’s music so fascinating. And speaking of folk tunes, The Fair Hills of Éiré, O! is injected with just the right amount of pathos; this ability to hold fast to the music’s sentiment and not give way to sentimentality is one of Johnson’s sterling qualities. Speaking of which, the silvery tones of A Hermit Thrush at Eve ‘in the orginal key but an octave lower’ are simply gorgeous. There’s an arresting stillness to this performance that’s entirely apt, the Guild team capturing every vibration and tremor with astonishing fidelity.
Indeed, this is one of the very best piano recordings I’ve heard; the acoustic seems well nigh ideal, as does the balance, and that makes already fine playing sound all the more immersive. The botanical bounties of Grandmother’s Garden bloom with the same ear-catching colours that permeate so much of Beach’s music; Morning Glories appear in a cool spray of sound, Heartsease fading over a gentle, falling bass. The Tchaikovskian Mignonette and the more robust Rosemary and Rue add plenty of shape and texture to this deftly sketched display. As for Honeysuckle, the easy burble of Beach’s writing here at times reminds me of Gottschalk. After all this progression comes the valedictory – and sometimes Joplinesque – Farewell to Summer and the highly animated Dancing Leaves.
This is a well-programmed collection, with enough variety to keep one fully engaged to the end. That’s not a given in anthologies of this kind, and all the more reason to applaud this enterprise as a whole. Liner-notes written by the artists themselves aren’t always a success either, but Johnson’s strike a good balance between description and analysis. I ended my review of the last volume wondering whether that disc would be a Recording of the Year. It was, and this one is likely to be too.
Dan Morgan

 


 

International Record Review – June 2011

This is the third volume in a projected four-volume series of American composer Amy Beach’s complete works for piano. It covers the years 1907 through 1924 – very important ones for Beach, as it turns out, as her husband (24 years her senior) died in 1910, followed by her mother’s death a year later. This enabled Beach, a hitherto obedient wife (she performed on the piano only once a year while married) and devoted daughter to spread her wings. Thus, in 1911, she left for Europe, concertized, promoted her music and returned in 1914 to the United States, eventually settling in the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, an artists’ community still in existence. Beach might have been a character from a Henry James novel – The Bostonians, perhaps – but she was a real person, and an interesting one at that. As a composer, she was nearly entirely self-taught, having devoted only a year (at the age of 14) to the study of harmony and counterpoint.
Mark Tanner reviewed Volume 2 (piano music from 1897-1907) in April 2009. He was largely appreciative, although he advised, `while much of the material is rather good, it frequently falls somewhat short of “great”.’ That’s fair. Perhaps the talented Beach would have flowered into a genius had she not been busy as a good wife and daughter.
The problem – perhaps more for us than for the composer – is that Beach’s piano music, while not forward-looking, falls between several stools. The titles suggest salon music, or genteel works intended to be performed by nice, marriageable young ladies. From Grandmother’s Garden, for example, contains five floral movements respectively devoted to `Morning Glories’, `Heartsease’, `Mignonette’, `Rosemary and Rue’ and `Honeysuckle’. In truth, Beach’s piano works are better than that. At times they suggest Americanized Tchaikovsky, and they owe something to Liszt and Chopin as well, even if they don’t aspire to grandeur and virtuosity. There are also suggestions that Beach was familiar with Debussy and his immediate forebears. Beach tantalizes us with refined miniatures and never quite makes a Big Statement.
Having said that, I, like MT, am moved to point out how attractive this programme is. Les Rêves de Colombine, as its title suggests, sounds more French than American. The winsome `Fee de la fontaine’ (in which the harmonies never quite go where expected, and which builds to a rather warm climax) is followed by `Le Prince gracieux’, who apparently is a smooth talker. The `Valse amoureuse’ also owes its charm to Beach’s gentle harmonic surprises. It is elegant but never grandiose. `Sous les étoiles’ is lightly regretful – a sentiment that doesn’t lapse into sentimentality. `Dause d’Arlequin’ repeats material from earlier movements and his own theme wouldn’t be out of place in a popular song from the period. Throughout this suite, one is surprised by how much Beach does with a canvas that initially seems limited. In The Lotos Isles, hypnotic right-hand figures do indeed suggest forgetfulness. Here, as well as in several other places throughout the recital, one is reminded of Edward MacDowell, who was just seven years older (but who tragically died before most of the music on this CD was composed).
I am not always convinced by the Lisztian writing in the Prelude and Fugue, but there are some lovely moments here too. (Both the Prelude and the Fugue are based on the musical `spelling’ of A-B-E-A-C-H, linking Beach to both Liszt and Bach.) The two Hermit Thrush pieces (Op. 92) contain Beach’s transcriptions of actual bird-song (anticipations of Messiaen!). The first also hints at Dvorák’s Songs my mother taught me.
Beach `cannot have anticipated a more attentive champion for her piano music than Kirsten Johnson’, wrote MT. Indeed, she seems to have entered entirely into Beach’s world, which is one of quiet individuality and intimate expressiveness. Johnson, like Beach, doesn’t flaunt her abilities and doesn’t oversell the music. Instead, she invites the listener to meet her in the middle, which we gladly do. The colour in her playing never crosses over into garishness. She makes a good case for the composer and Guild’s engineers match her with detailed (but not clinical) sound that has both warmth and brightness. The pianist’s annotations are lovingly detailed, just like her playing.
Raymond S. Tuttle

New Classics Co – March 08 2011

The prolific American composer and pianist Amy Beach was born as Amy Marcy Cheney into a distinguished New England family in 1867. A child prodigy, she was able to sing forty tunes accurately by the age of one, taught herself to read at three, and began composing simple waltzes age only four. She began formal piano lessons with her mother at the age of six, and a year later started giving public recitals, playing works by Handel, Beethoven, Chopin, and her own pieces. She made her professional debut in Boston in 1883 and shortly afterwards appeared as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Opera. Following her marriage in 1885 to Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach she limited her performances to one public recital a year, and at her husbands request, she devoted herself to composition. With the success of her Mass in E Flat Major in 1892, Amy Beach was recognised as one of Americas finest composers. After her husband died, she toured Europe as a pianist, playing her own compositions, before returning to America to use her status to further the careers of many young musicians. Kirsten Johnson continues her series of the complete works of Amy Beach with this new album, subtitled The Mature Years, representing the composers works from 1907 to 1924. These include the masterful Prelude and Fugue, the concert piece Fantasia Fugata, and many beguiling piano miniatures. Farewell Autumn and Dancing Leaves are world première recordings, as are also Lotus Isles and Blackbird Hills. These forgotten pieces by a world-renowned composer are now available for the first time and Kirsten Johnson bring the music to life with technical brilliance, sympathetic interpretation and musical depth.

Musik & Theater – May 2011

Natureindrücke regten die Amerikanerin Amy Beach zu originelleren Klavierstücken an als spröde Fugenthemen. Wie sie selber aufgezeichnete Gesänge von Einsiedlerdrosseln verarbeitete oder herbstlichen Blätterfall umsetzte, klingt besser als die wenig inspirierte «Fantasia fugata» oder «Prelude and Fugue». Kirsten Johnson gibt ihr Bestes in stimmungshaften Stücken von speziellem Klangreiz.
Walter Labhart