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Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor, Op. 45 (1898-99)[36:40]
Symphony in E minor, Op. 32 "Gaelic" (1894-96) [42:19]
Alan Feinberg, piano
Nashville Symphony Orchestra
Kenneth Schermerhorn
Recorded at Andrew Jackson Hall of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, 13-15 April, 2002. DDD
NAXOS 8.559139 [79:02]

Amy Beach holds the distinction of being the first American woman to gain international fame as a composer of large-scale works of music. A heroine to women composers everywhere, Beach overcame incredible odds and made a career as both a performing artist and composer who was not only heard, but also taken very seriously. She left behind a catalogue of some 300 works.

Born in the Victorian era in New Hampshire, Amy Cheney Beach first met roadblocks when her parents restricted her from public performance. It was considered improper for women to have a career that was anything other than domestic. When at the age of eighteen she married Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, he placed further shackles on her by only allowing her to play one public recital per year, and insisting that she use the ‘moniker’ of Mrs. H.H.A. Beach, thus depriving her of a measure of independence. Widowed at the age of forty-four, Beach resumed her performing career and went to Germany for further study. She died in 1944 after gaining much fame both in the United States and abroad.

Her abilities were miraculous indeed, and much of what she learnt about form, orchestration and composition, she taught herself. The two works on this disc are perhaps the apex of her major symphonic output, and prove that she was a composer of phenomenal abilities. One can only imagine what she might have accomplished had she proper training been made available to her at an early age.

The piano concerto is a rather massive work, heavy on lush orchestration and virtuoso passagework. It tastes a good deal like Rachmaninoff, except that the thematic content is not nearly as tight and well constructed. On the whole, I found the piece to be somewhat out of proportion with its lengthy first movement clocking in at about the same time as the remaining three combined. On the plus side, there are a number of winning features and although one does not exactly leave the hall whistling any tunes, there are a number of pleasant moments. The scherzo, dubbed perpetuum mobile rather goes nowhere, and is on the whole an exercise in parallel sixths. The Largo is elegant and tuneful and hints strongly at the influence of the above-mentioned Russian. The rollicking finale is rather Chopin-esque in its dancing triple meter.

Alan Feinberg is certainly capable of making his way adroitly around the keyboard. Alas, he is recorded entirely too far forward and the bright tone of his instrument is often grating. There is no real warmth to his playing, rather the sound, particularly in the upper registers is over bright and shrill. The balance between soloist and orchestra is way off and Maestro Schermerhorn has some serious difficulty keeping his winds and brass in tune. As I recall from having attended several concerts there, the Andrew Jackson hall is no marvel for acoustics, and the sound never gets a real bloom.

Beach’s Gaelic symphony is somewhat of a rebuttal to Dvořák’s embracing of Native American and African American folk tunes as primary thematic material for new American symphonic works. Beach contended that a composer should write from his or her own personal heritage, and thus, she chose tunes from her ancestral British Isles. As a result, the thematic continuity of the symphony fares better than that of the concerto, and on the whole the work hangs together quite well. Opening with a fine forward thrust, the first movement gives way to a beautifully melodic Siciliana, which in this performance is played excruciatingly out of tune by the winds. Wrought with lovely solo writing and expressive orchestration this is a work that deserves a more regular spot in the repertoire. One hopes that it will soon receive a better performance than this one. Although there are some nice moments here, the intonation issues quite quickly disqualify this performance from anything higher than about the second tier. Let us hope that Naxos does not entrust too much more of its landmark series of American works to this ensemble.

Program notes are fine, sound quality leaves something to be desired, especially for the brittle sound of the piano in the concerto and the rather boxy quality of the orchestra. One is reminded of old Columbia LPs at their worst. Recommended only for the deserved attention of the repertoire.

Kevin Sutton

see also review by Colin Clarke

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