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Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
Piano Concerto in C sharp minor, Op. 45 (1898/9) [36’40]
Symphony in E minor, Op. 32, ‘Gaelic’ (1896-6) [42’19].
Alan Feinberg (piano); Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Schermerhorn.
Rec. Andrew Jackson Hall, Tennesee Performing Arts Centre, Nashville, USA on April 13th-15th, 2002. DDD
How good it is to see the music of Amy Beach turning up on a fairly regular basis these days (Chandos in particular have issued several top-class discs). This new Naxos disc makes a logical pairing of two major works, and yet it is unique in the catalogue.

Beach was a concert pianist by profession, but the prevailing Zeitgeist meant that when she married, her husband was able to dictate that she only played in public once a year. Composition was allowed, however, and during the 25 years of her marriage Mrs Beach composed a great deal, including the two pieces under consideration. Indeed, Beach was soloist in the première of her piano concerto in April 1900 in Boston.

She must have been a remarkable player, if this concerto is anything to go by. The piece is cast in four movements and uses some of the composer’s own songs as melodic material. There is a romantic bent to much of this piece, a kind of distant nostalgia that is most affecting. Some of the melodic material comes from Beach’s own songs, perhaps aiding the lyrical core of the piece. Indeed, the music flowers beautifully and irresistibly: this feeling of an ongoing logic is a direct outgrowth from Beach’s natural harmonic sensitivity. The cadenza displays heart-on-sleeve virtuosity openly.

The second movement Scherzo is probably the most memorable movement, though. It is a perpetuum mobile, with the finger-breaking (and finger-twisting!) piano part remarkably despatched here by Feinberg. An element of play is foregrounded here that contrasts with the more serious Largo, which begins in homage to Wagner before returning to Beach’s free-flowing ease of composition. The sparkling finale contains gestures which more than tend towards the Lisztian. This is a fascinating piece which, especially at this price, is wholeheartedly recommended to the curious.

The slightly earlier Symphony in E minor uses four traditional Irish tunes as part of its vocabulary (this was in response to the composer having heard the Boston Premiere of Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony). The nostalgic elements identified in the piano concerto are here even more obvious, especially when heard as shamelessly as in the sunnily lyrical Lento con molto espressione third movement. It is true that the finale can be syrupy, too. In fact it is the well-crafted first movement (the Nashville strings cope well with the high-lying lines) and the sweet, swift-of-foot Siciliana which seem to be the piece’s strongest statements.

The Nashville orchestra plays with all the commitment one could desire, and Tim Handley’s recording is clear and atmospheric. A bargain.

Colin Clarke

see also review by Neil Horner

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