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Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
Quartet for Strings Op. 89 (1921-29)
Violin Sonata Op. 34 (1896) *
Pastorale Op. 151 (1921-41)
Dreaming Op. 15 No. 3 (for Piano 1892; transcribed for Cello and Piano by the composer 1927)
Ambache (Helen Keen (flute) Jeremy Polmear (oboe) Joan-Enric Lluna (clarinet) Brian Sewell (bassoon) Timothy Brown (horn) Gabrielle Lester (violin*- Violin Sonata) Ruth Ehrlich (violin) Martin Outram (viola) Judith Herbert (cello) Diana Ambache (piano))
Recorded St Michael’s Church, Highgate, October 2002
CHANDOS CHAN 10162 [55.41]


How many recordings of Beach’s big 1896 Violin Sonata do you know? There are Silverstein and Kalisch on New World, Pascal and Polk on Arabesque, Johnson and Kairoff on Albany, the Pontremolis on Centaur, Macomber and Walsh on Classics and Delmoni and Funahashi on JMR. And now we can add Gabrielle Lester and Diana Ambache, members of the pianist’s eponymous ensemble, in this October 2002 recording. This was a work premiered by the composer and the irascible violinist Franz Kneisel, famed and feared teacher, leader of the Boston Orchestra, and whose own quartet was the most prestigious such ensemble in America. It was taken up by Ysaÿe and Pugno who gave it at least one performance in Paris, in 1900. Cast in four movements and lasting half an hour this is an engaging, personal sonata that never quite works. The opening movement is full of gentle lyricism, though the material is over-stretched and the Scherzo has capricious little rhythmic moments and a piu lento section that delves into more reflective, wandering lines. Marked con dolore the piano opens the Largo with pronounced nobility of utterance and there is increasing turbulence alongside the intense and soaring cantilena and playing in alt even if Beach does once again stretch her line. 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. However daintily it’s done it does sound – albeit attractively – contrived. Lester is a very expressive player and commendably explores the turbulence and most especially the melodic contours of the Sonata. But there are some lapses in intonation and I’d also rather she’d been more dashing and less diffuse (often Beach’s fault) in the finale; it’s marked con fuoco when it opens, after all.

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 piece Eskimos (in the days when an Eskimo was an Eskimo). This is an intensely contrapuntal work with a keening, intimate texture, in one movement though fairly clearly sub-divided into three sections with a final recapitulation. It’s full of unison sway with a slightly austere profile, enriched by tremolandi, a fugato section (disappointingly conventional, this, in a work of this kind) and a soaring first violin part over a springy accompaniment. The Pastorale for woodwind is wistful, languorous and summery and less than four minutes long. And Dreaming is a Beach transcription for cello and piano of a solo piano piece – a lyrical effusion, Francophile in leaning though perhaps slightly heavier than that implies.

Though this is an attractively presented disc, neither the Sonata (see above for rivals) nor the Quartet is a novelty - in recent years both the Crescent and Lark Quartets have recorded it. The generous recorded sound is a definite bonus and the programme sufficiently enjoyable to tempt.

Jonathan Woolf


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