GMCD 7387 – Piano Music by Amy Beach – Vol. 4, The Late Works

Kirsten Johnson (piano)

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American Record Guide – May/June 2013

Despite attempts to roll back women’s rights, the last few decades have seen marked improvements musically for the ladies in this country. Who would have thought a few years ago that Amy Beach’s piano music would have been represented by not just one, but several recordings?
Virginia Eskin, from the Boston area, was a pioneer in promoting Amy Beach on several recordings. While she presented us with a fair representation of the music, either circumstances or choice prevented her from completing the series. Her performances were far more than serviceable, and her advocacy and pioneering spirit is much appreciated, though the reviewer thought less of the music (M/J 1996). Joanne Polk, on the Manhattan School of Music faculty since 2010, gave us the first complete series of the piano music and even extended it to include the Piano Concerto and the chamber music with piano. Those are recordings to treasure. Harold Schonberg’s reviews were favorable to both music and performance (N/D 1997, J/A 1998, M/A 1999).
Kirsten Johnson was born in Virginia but now resides in Oxford, England. Remaining true to her American roots she embarked on recording the complete piano music in 2006. This is her latest volume, and her dedication has managed to turn up a few pieces not included in Polk’s series. Whether her advocacy will go beyond the solo music remains to be seen. What we have so far is fully up to the high standards set by Eskin and Polk. Only the first volume appears to have been covered in these pages (J/A 2008), and the reviewer felt the earliest pieces not worthy of repeated hearings.
I must confess to liking this music, as Mr Schonberg did. If nothing reaches masterpiece status, it never aims for those lofty peaks. If you like the short pieces by MacDowell and his contemporary New Englanders, you will most likely respond well to the music of Amy Beach. There is charm aplenty, grace, and all the vivacious technical savvy one could ask for. What’s more, occasional good tunes appear— surely not something to sneer at these days. The excellent notes, by the pianist, point out Beach’s “long term relationship with the Mac-Dowell Colony, spending much happy time composing”. Since her life extended many years beyond MacDowell’s, it is not surprising to find some Impressionist harmonies in her color palette.
Included here are 23 of her later compositions. Most are very short, though a few exceed four minutes. They include pieces for children such as ‘Sliding on the Ice’ with its cakewalk rhythm and ‘The First Mayflowers’, with its simple sentimentality. Also in the cakewalk territory is ‘A Bit of Cairo’, from 1928, no doubt influenced by the six weeks she spent in Paris and the Egyptian treasures she had seen at the Louvre. The strange set of five pieces called Improvisations show that Beach had definitely not turned a deaf ear to the experimentation taking place around her.

International Record Review – November 2012

I reviewed the third volume in this series a little more than a year ago (June 2011). Here is the final volume, taking Amy Beach to the age of 70. (She lived seven years longer, passing away two days after Christmas in 1944.) Beach did not have an extensive formal education in music – at least not to the degree she would have enjoyed had she been a man, and had she not spent her formative years in and around highly conservative Boston. As studying the piano was acceptable for a young woman, she was very well trained as a pianist and gave recitals from the age of seven. Composition was another matter entirely, however, and she studied for only a year, when she was just 14, with a local teacher of harmony and counterpoint. (In fairness, it seems that both Beach and, later on, her husband were of the opinion that too much formal training as a composer could be deleterious to her originality. For the most Part, she was proudly self-taught.) Beach was married in 1885 when she was still a teenager and her husband was 24 years her senior. He allowed her to perform publicly only once a year, and then only for charity. He was not averse to her continuing to compose. It is unsurprising that, for years after her death, she was still known as ‘Mrs. H. H. A. Beach’.
Still, it is incorrect to view her career as thoroughly stunted by societal oppression. In 1910, after her husband died, she spread her wings. She left for Europe, concertized, promoted her music and returned in 1914 to the United States. She was the first president of the Society of American Women Composers. Nevertheless, who knows what her career might have been like had her personal circumstances prior to 1910 been different? As I wrote last time, ‘Perhaps the talented Beach would have flowered into a genius had she not been busy as a good wife and daughter.’
I did have to smile at the idea that Beach’s music might have been less original had she received a more extensive musical education. Taken on its own, this is very attractive music and Beach’s craftsmanship is exquisite. Innovative it is not, however, and I am not sure how she would have been harmed by two years in Leipzig. Although the titles of these works are redolent of lilac, teas and picnic baskets, the music has more substance than that. It shows her awareness of Chopin and Liszt, and also of the impressionists. Debussy-like harmonies often appear. In fact, Debussy’s ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ is frankly quoted in A Bit of Cairo. (The booklet note admits this but does not explain it.) Tchaikovsky’s piano works, most of them minor, but always diverting, come to mind. Also, one must acknowledge the influence of Edward MacDowell, particularly in Beach’s keen observation of the natural world.
The largest work here, by far, is the nine-minute Tyrolean Valse-Fantaisie, begun in 1911. This is an elegant picture postcard, with its outlines artistically softened through Beach’s harmonies and decorations. Next longest is A September Forest; more than its title suggests MacDowell. A Cradle Song of the Lonely Mother is, if not programmatic, than at least evocative of exactly that. The theme of a solitary woman returns in `Far Awa’, a transcription of a song Beach published in 1899. Although she was a widow for her last 34 years, one does not sense any self-pity in these two works, or any others for that matter. She had too much good taste for that. Good taste, then, is the banner that these works wave, although of course there will be those who wish that Beach could have been, at least occasionally, a little bad or mad or sad.
Kirsten Johnson’s playing is, similarly, a model of professionalism and tastefulness. As I wrote the last time, she `never crosses over into garishness’ and she has an intimate understanding of Beach, and of the milieu in which the composer lived and worked. She demonstrates this in her booklet notes also. Having said that, I will make the same comment about Johnson’s pianism as I did out Beach’s music: are there not times when it is good, perhaps, to run down a hill, screaming or laughing, with your hair flowing free behind you? A sense of control, in the music, and in the performances, never diminishes. Even the engineering, which is warm and never clangorous, could open up the sound a little more.
Raymond S. Tuttle

MusicWeb International – Autumn 2012

What a glorious cycle this has been. Volume 2 was one of my Recordings of the Year 2009 and its successor very nearly made it to last year’s list. Beach was new to me first time around – as was Kirsten Johnson – but the thrill of discovery was undiminished with Volume 3. I certainly hoped this final instalment – The Late Works – would be as rewarding as its predecessors, both musically and sonically. Seconds into this disc and it’s clear this is going to be yet another treat. Johnson’s intuitive, unassuming pianism is backed up by a recording of clarity and poise.
As Johnson avers in her lucid liner-notes – which strike a very good balance between description and analysis – the restless Nocturne is anything but a dreamy interlude. Beach’s writing is direct and unsentimental, with just enough harmonic sweetness to prevent the music tipping into unwelcome aridity. The Wyastone Leys acoustic brings out Johnson’s emphasis on articulation and focus. The rhythms and stentorian chords of the Tyrolean waltz-fantasy superbly wrought. That’s not to suggest a lack of charm or loveliness; the latter quality is omnipresent in The Old Chapel by Moonlight, whose soft meanderings are very atmospheric indeed. Ditto the sleep-inducing rock-a-bye of A Cradle Song and the mesmerising crystalline quality of By the Still Waters.
There’s an acuity of observation in Beach’s writing, underlined by the aphoristic but characterful miniatures that make up From Six to Twelve. I had to marvel at the easy rhythmic strokes of Canoeing, the point and animation in Secrets of the Attic and the warmth of A Fire-side Ceremonial. What a powerful sense of communion, of simple gifts gratefully shared. Also, style and content are always in equilibrium; the Boy Scouts March is small but perfectly formed. It’s all magically played and so beautifully recorded. I just can’t imagine Beach’s legacy better served than it is here.
There are two keen intellects at work in this repertoire; Beach, who balances outward pictorialism with disarming inner discipline, and Johnson, who responds to – and so gently reconciles – these subtle tensions. Just sample Young Birches, which combines suppleness and sinew or the brief shimmer of A Humming-bird. Even in Out of the Depths there’s a pleasing balance between scale and effect. Musical seams are never mined to exhaustion and programming – so important in anthologies of this kind – ensures telling changes of mood and tempo.
Some of the most pellucid writing can be found in the Five Improvisations. Surely this is a distillation of all that’s gone before. Easeful and inventive, this is music and music-making of joy and contentment. Indeed, as artistic summations go this could hardly be more impressive.
Music of striking character and charm, superbly played; a fitting conclusion to this fine cycle.
Dan Morgan