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Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
Morning Glories

Quartet for Strings Op 89 (1921-29) #
Violin Sonata Op 34 (1896) *
Piano Trio Op.150 (1938) +
Diane Pascal (violin) and Joanne Polk (piano) *
Diane Pascal (violin), Astrid Schween (cello) and Joanne Polk (piano) +
The Lark Quartet #
Recorded at The Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Centre, Purchase College, State University of New York, June 1999
ARABESQUE Z6747 [59.54]

The Ambache Ensemble on Chandos recently challenged the core of this collection of Beach’s chamber music – the Violin Sonata and the Quartet. Challenged, yes, but they failed to breach because these 1999 performances are the superior ones – more flexible, natural-sounding and idiomatic and in the case of the Violin Sonata with a better sense of pacing and superior intonation. Premiered by the composer and the irascible violinist Franz Kneisel, famed and feared teacher, leader of the Boston Orchestra, the sonata was taken up by Ysaÿe and Pugno who gave it at least one performance in Paris, in 1900. It’s cast in four movements. The opening movement is full of gentle lyricism, and the Pascal/Polk duo catch very well the musing intimacy that gives it such lift and life. They also catch the elasticity of line without which the movement tends to fracture into dainty reflection and are tighter in tempo and in terms of thematic incident than their Chandos rivals. They give the start of the Scherzo a deceptive sense of introversion but give good value to the piu lento section that delves into more reflective, wandering lines. Marked con dolore, the piano opens the Largo with real nobility of utterance and there is increasing turbulence alongside the intense and soaring cantilena and playing in alt even if Beach does rather stretch her line too far. The driving, late Romantic finale is enjoyable with ingrained lyrical reminiscences of earlier themes and a three-voiced fugue, which itself reminds one of the fugal section in the first movement. These two players are certainly more up to tempo than their English counterparts and take the con fuoco instruction rather better to heart.

The Quartet was only published after Beach’s death. Begun in 1921 it was completed in 1929 in Rome. She uses Alaskan Inuit songs – as she had before in her 1907 piano piece Eskimos. I like the way the Lark Quartet bring out the shifting chromaticisms here as indeed they do a sense of cool intensity and intimations of bleak abstraction. This is an intensely contrapuntal work with a keening, intimate texture. It is in one movement though fairly clearly sub-divided into three sections with a final recapitulation. It’s a work with a decidedly austere profile, enriched by tremolandi, and a fugato section that may remind one of the corresponding fugato in the Violin Sonata. Above all there’s purity and intimacy here in this fine performance.

The Trio is a work of summation. It was written in 1938, a late work in which Beach returned to earlier compositions and used them anew or, in her down to earth words – "Trying a work from old material. Great fun." And so it is – three brief movements rich in Debussyian wistfulness, with strong reminiscences of her Brahmsian piano past (see parts of the Violin Sonata for more but no Liszt in the piano writing that I can hear). She charts an eclectic compositional course, ending with a fine marching finale, chock full of confident syncopation and real animation. Great fun indeed.

Part of Arabesque’s invaluable Beach series this shouldn’t be overlooked in the welter of Joanne Polk’s solo piano works. These are just as valuable and have the advantage of a fine recording and dedicated, understanding, expert performances.

Jonathan Woolf


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