GMCD 7351 – Piano Music by Amy Beach – Vol. 3, The Mature Years
Kirsten Johnson (piano)
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.
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.
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.
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.