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Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
Piano Concerto in C sharp minor, Op. 45 * (1898-99)
Symphony in E minor (Gaelic), Op. 32 (1894-96)
Alan Feinberg, piano *
Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Schermerhorn
Recorded in Andrew Jackson Hall, Tennessee Performing Arts Centre, TN, USA, April 13th -15th 2002.
NAXOS 8.559139 [79.02]

Another exemplary disc in the Naxos American Classics series brings together the two works which are arguably Amy Beach's finest achievements, at least in a large scale format. The performances are as idiomatic as we have come to expect from Schermerhorn's Nashville recordings (the Ives and Hanson discs were superb!) and Alan Feinberg is a celebrated stalwart of the American piano repertoire, including some wonderful Ives. His contribution to the Andrew Imbrie CD on Bridge is very fine and that same label, rather than Neeme Järvi on Chandos, provided my first exposure to Beach's highly affecting symphony. Much as I still enjoy that performance, cuts and all, and its William Grant Still coupling, this new Naxos disc has now to be a top recommendation, especially at budget price.

The four movement symphony was written almost in reaction to Dvořák's suggestion, as was later definitely seen in the music of the aforementioned Still, that American classical music ought to draw on "African and Native American" themes. Beach argued, and here put into practice, that it was equally acceptable and appropriate to use the musical material of Americans' ancestral countries, in this case Ireland, to invigorate and, I suppose, validate the new "tradition". Whatever your thoughts on this philosophy, you cannot fail to be impressed by the music to which it gave rise. The Gaelic, while it is clearly rooted in the prevailing late-Romantic musical landscape, makes apt and truly memorable use of several Irish folk tunes, from jigs to laments. The slow movement, marked Lento con molto espressione, is a particularly affecting musical embodiment of "the laments, romance and dreams of the Irish people". This music is, unsurprisingly, closer to Stanford and Harty than to Copland and Bernstein. It still represented a major step forward in the development of a separate, truly American musical identity, going far beyond the strict adherence to Germanic models practised by, say, Parker, who initially taught Charles Ives. Anyway, I urge you strongly to make this symphony's acquaintance as only the most died in the wool ultra-modernist could possibly fail to respond, by turns, to both its charms and emotional depth.

The piano concerto is a slightly later work but still composed on the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries. Like the symphony, it also makes use of themes from some of Beach's celebrated art songs. The opening Allegro is almost as long as the other three movements put together but, again, it is the keening, lyrical slow movement that has the greatest impact. Pianistic virtuosity abounds but there is much more to Amy Beach as a composer, both here and elsewhere. It is very gratifying to see her music being championed so successfully. Like Rebecca Clarke, who has also recently undergone a critical and recording renaissance, Beach is a landmark female composer who deserves the widest possible hearing for her accessible and beautifully crafted music.

Neil Horner

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