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Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
The Solo Piano Music. Three Volumes

Volume 1 – By The Still Waters

Variations on Balkan Themes Op.60 (1904)
Scottish legend Op.54 No.1 (1903)
Gavotte fantastique Op.54 No.2 (1903)
Scherzino; A Peterboro Chipmunk Op.128 No.1
Young Birches Op.128 No.2
A Humming Bird Op.128 No.3
Far awa’ (Transcription of Beach’s Song Op.43 No.4)
Out of The Depths (Psalm 130) Op.130 (c.1928)
Trois morceaux caractéristiques Op.28 (1894)
By The Still Waters Op.114 (1925)
Joanne Polk (piano)
Recorded at The Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Centre, Purchase College, State University of New York, August 1996
ARABESQUE Z6993 [67.55]

 

Volume 2 – Under The Stars
Valse-Caprice Op.4 (c.1888)
Prelude and Fugue Op.81 (1912)
A Hermit Thrush at Eve Op.92 No.1 (1921)
A Hermit Thrush at Morn Op.92 No.2 (1921)
Ballad Op.6
A Cradle Song of the Lonely Mother Op.108 (1924)
The Fair Hills of Éiré, O! Op.91 (1922)
Les Rêves de Columbine; Suite Française Op.65 (1907)
Joanne Polk (piano)
Recorded at The Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Centre, Purchase College, State University of New York, April 1997
ARABESQUE Z6704 [67.03]

 

 

Volume 3 – Fire-Flies
Four Sketches Op.15
Fantasia fugata Op.87 (1923)
Transcription of Richard Strauss’s Serenade
Five Improvisations Op.148 (1938)
Tyrolean Valse-fantasie Op.116 (1914)
Eskimos, Four Characteristic Pieces Op.64 (1904)
Nocturne Op.107
From Grandmother’s Garden Op.97
Joanne Polk (piano)
Recorded at The Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Centre, Purchase College, State University of New York, October 1997
ARABESQUE Z6721 [69.38]



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Arabesque’s devotion to the music of Amy Beach has been not only of long-standing but also rewarding. I’ve grouped together the three volumes of the solo piano works, though Joanne Polk reappears elsewhere in the series as a chamber partner and to fine effect. The three volumes range back and forth across Beach’s compositional life each one extracting some nugget from this under-appreciated corpus of work and leavening it with some of Beach’s fantasies, paraphrases and transcriptions, all of which round out a fuller picture of her enthusiasms and musical influences.

The Variations on Balkan Themes, which owes its origin to the Macedonian-Turkish conflict of the time, is a series of variations on four themes with one of them making multiple reappearances. She writes a proud and defiant Maestoso complete with Lisztian flourish and a discreetly effective Largo con molta espressione. The powerful funeral march never explores an especially complex depth but she saves up the virtuosic trajectory for the six-minute plus Cadenza and finale where, after a torrent of more Lisztian rhetoric, we end in contemplative stillness. Beach, herself of course a notable pianist, would have relished the drama and the introversion of such music and would have calculated the effect accordingly. She gave the premiere in Boston in 1905. Along with the Variations we have lighter morceaux and some nature studies perhaps more truly representative of her. The Scottish Legend has an attractive scotch snap but its opus companion, the Gavotte fantastique, really glints with whimsical fire and exploits the keyboard for maximum effect (trills, fast scales and the like). It’s no wonder the piece held appeal to other pianists – Olga Samaroff played it frequently for instance.

Young Birches is laced with impressionist intensity and A Humming Bird is full of fluttering Ravelian influence, whilst her transcription of Far Awa’ shows another side – the Gaelic and Celtic inheritance. Perhaps the most concentratedly impressive of the pieces in the first volume is Out of the Depths, a Psalm setting written c.1928 and published four years later. Beach took Psalm 130 and in this realisation of it she manages to evoke a declamatory resolution, a stark and bleak intensity and ultimately, through purely musical means, a reconciliatory force. All most impressive. Of the Trois morceaux caractéristiques it’s the last that stays longest in the memory: rhythmically lilting, lively, variational and extremely clever.

The second volume opens with another of Beach’s influences, Chopin. This is the Valse-Caprice, her Op.4 and one of the first of her own works that she played in recital. From Chopin to Liszt, whose influence was to remain pervasive, at least in terms of the technical resources of the keyboard. He looms large in her Prelude and Fugue, which was begun in 1912, especially in the intense and brooding Prelude. The same is true of the transcription of her own songs - the Op.6 Ballad, say – in which Lisztian rhetoric seems to bear down too heavily on her. One feels Beach more singularly alive in something like A Hermit Thrush at Eve with its ripple and naturalistic shadow and gauze and its companion piece A Hermit Thrush at Morn, which is laced with imaginative expectation. As attractive, maybe more complexly so, is A Cradle Song of the Lonely Mother. This, for all the wispy sounding sentimentality of the title, is actually a highly chromatic and dense setting. It includes spiralling ascents to a trill and nascent depth of feeling, the left hand on an unresolved emotive quest – both hands indeed exploring the furthermost extremes of emotive meaning. Similarly there are some intriguingly voiced reiterations of the melody in The Fair Hills of Éiré, O! that deserve rehearing. The second volume ends with her Gallic Les Rêves de Columbine: full of caprice and fancy, character studies of finesse and old fashioned charm – also expressive grandeur and romantic tracery.

Fire-flies is the final volume in the series of solo piano works and ranges widely. The Four Sketches are Schumannesque in impulse though the piece that gives this disc its title is more Chopin in orientation, an encore pleaser. Her Fantasia fugata is a feline and attractive one again though submerged rather too deeply in Lisztian heroism for overmuch individuality to emerge. At the heart of this disc however sit the Five Improvisations, her Op.148, a very late set from 1938. This looks back to Brahms whilst simultaneously expanding her harmonic palette still further through dissonance and an elliptical sense of compression; hear the fourth for her increasing sense of concision and stillness. She utilises a Viennese Waltz and the polonaise as well, all the while binding them to her very individual schema for these little, but by no means uneventful, improvisations. This is Beach at her late best. In the ebullient Chopin-meets-Richard Strauss Tyrolean Valse-fantasie, written just before the outbreak of the First World War, we have a perfect example of her contemporary enthusiasms but it’s the early Eskimos that render up richer rewards. They’re certainly not at all advanced harmonically, but they possess an attractive and lively personality, as do the rippling arpeggios of the first of From Grandmother’s Garden, a set of five etudes, that keeps sentimentality at bay through evocative mild dissonance and feisty cross-rhythms.

These three volumes have been recorded in a most sympathetic acoustic. Joanne Polk proves herself to be as idiomatic an interpreter as could be imagined: subtle, nuanced, technically adroit and entirely inside the idiom. To the initiated where do you start? I’d start with the First Volume, move onto the Third and make a special effort to hear A Hermit Thrush at Eve and Morn from the Second. You’ll be rewarded.

Jonathan Woolf



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