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Cecil BURLEIGH (1885-1980)
Music for Violin and Piano

Impromptu (1911)
Nature’s Voices (1922): Winding Streams; Giant Hills; O’er the Meadow; Reapers
Five Indian Sketches: Legend; Over Laughing Waters; To the Warriors; From a Wigwam; Sun Dance
Plantation Sketches (1916): In Cotton Fields ; Pickaninnies; A Log Cabin; Uncle Rastus; Mammy’s Lullaby; Minstrel
Characteristic Pieces (1910): Idyle; The Lament of a Rose; Indian Snake-Dance; Spanish Serenade; Lullaby; Bolero
Six Fancies (1917): Early Morning; Fairy Sailing; Dew; Coloring; Woodbine; Yule-Tide;
Four Concert Pieces (1920): By the Wayside; Fairies Dancing; Tints; Spray;
Boyhood Recollections (1925): Hushed Woods; Pirating; Sweet Romance; In Haunted Shadows; Jim
Spanish Dance (1909)
Cradle Song (1909)
Zina Schiff, violin, Mary Barranger, piano, Cherina Carmel, piano (tracks 1 and 39)
Recorded at the Warren Studios, University of California, March 19-20th, 1998

To include these modest trifles in a series called ‘American Classics’ is stretching it just a bit. If they comprised a ‘dossier’, I’d probably accuse Naxos of ‘sexing them up’! But don’t let’s carp, because this series has already unearthed much worthy music which might not otherwise have seen the light of day ever again, as well as genuine classics such as Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, which I shall be reviewing shortly.

Cecil Burleigh, we are told, was an American who studied in Berlin as a young man, before returning to Chicago to study violin and composing at the Chicago Musical College. He taught and performed for a time before succumbing to the lure of the big city working in New York for some years while studying composition with Ernest Bloch and violin with Leopold Auer. Despite this contact with greatness, he wasn’t able to sustain a career as a composer, and settled down in a teaching post in Wisconsin in 1921, where he remained until 1955.

Though he composed some large-scale music – symphonies, string quartets and the inevitable tone-poems – the bulk of his output is made up of music for violin and piano, much of which is presented here, with seven suites and three independent works. The Impromtu of track 1, composed in 1909, is fascinating in that it is a sort of ‘clone’ of Elgar’s Salut d’amour. Indeed, so similar is it in its phrasing, style and mood, that I wondered if it was a deliberate conscious piece of pastiche on Burleigh’s part. It wouldn’t be in the least bit surprising were this the case, for Elgar’s short work is one of the gems of salon music, which, given his instrument and his composing proclivities, Burleigh must surely have admired. The pianist on just this track and the Cradle Song that ends the disc is Cherina Carmel, who was also the recording’s producer.

The interesting point about Miss Carmel is that she was only 16 when this recital was recorded. Perhaps we can therefore forgive her, for the recording balance is not good, I’m afraid. Zina Schiff and her violin are far, far too close, making it quite a painful experience to listen to at anything above quite low volume. This is a great pity, because she plays beautifully, and produces a fine, rich tone. But the balance is very unkind to her.

There is an unintentional hilarity of the titles of many of the pieces – ‘From a Wigwam’, ‘In the Cotton Fields’, ‘Pickaninnies’, ‘Uncle Rastus’, and so forth. But Burleigh belonged to an age before the restraints of the dreaded Political Correctness had begun to bite, lucky fellow. There is nothing here to be offended by, any more than one might be by Woodforde-Finden’s Indian Love Lyrics or Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. (Interestingly, the Microsoft Word programme that I’m using to type this didn’t recognise ‘golliwog’ and suggested ‘pollywog’ instead! Right On, Bill Gates. But what’s a ‘pollywog’ anybody?)

The music, however, is attractive, even charming at times, and the naive titles are really just the most general indication of the nature of the number concerned. Thus ‘From a Wigwam’ is a moody piece beginning with unaccompanied muted violin; ‘Sun Dance’ has a rather attractive rhythmic accompaniment in the piano, reminiscent of Grieg in his ‘troll’ vein. On the other hand, ‘Uncle Rastus’ is, confusingly, an energetic dance in Bohemian style, very much influenced by Dvořák; and ‘Minstrels’ is a hectic, rather irritable piece. Perhaps Burleigh’s experiences of minstrels were not happy ones.

For me, the most successful group was the Characteristic Pieces of 1910. The opening ‘Idyle’ is a delightfully carefree little ditty, while ‘The Lament of a Rose’ is the most impassioned piece in the collection, with an intense, sustained melody. The title and the expressive content of this and other pieces remind us of the debt Burleigh owed to another American composer – Edward MacDowell, 25 years Burleigh’s senior, and immensely influential on this subsequent generation of composers. His most famous work remains ‘To a Wild Rose’, which is why this particular track brings the connection strongly to mind. These Characteristic Pieces end with an effervescent ‘Bolero’.

All the pieces are extremely short – Burleigh clearly didn’t want to overtax his audiences! He rarely breaks the ‘two-minute barrier’ (except in the Characteristic Pieces, which may be why they stand out as more impressive than the others). Even the latest of the suites, ‘Boyhood Recollections’, has this characteristic brevity. In common with many of the tracks, I would strongly commend ‘Sweet Romance’ and ‘Jim’ as highly effective possible encores for certain recital programmes.

And in a sense that’s what this is – a disc of thirty-nine tiny, albeit attractive, encores, and the effect is rather like eating dozens of canapés in place of a real meal – not something to be recommended, and liable to leave you dying for a good old Mahlerian blow-out.

There’s much to relish here, nonetheless. Zina Schiff is a really splendid violinist, a pupil of Heifetz, and a performer of distinction who puts her heart, soul and considerable expertise at the service of these forgotten miniatures. It’s a pity that she is poorly served by the recording; but adjust the volume to a comfortable level and sit back and enjoy the artistry.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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