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Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
Piano Music Volume 1 – The Early Works

Sketches Op.15 (1892) [12:38]
Mamma’s Waltz (1872) [2:01]
Menuetto (1877) [1:28]
Romanza (1877) [1:33]
Petite Valse (1878) [1:36]
Air and Variations (1877) [3:47]
Valse Caprice Op.4 [5:09]
Ballade Op.6 [9:21]
Bal Masque Op.22 [3:37]
Children’s Carnival Op.25 (1894) [10:18]
Trois morceaux caractéristiques Op.28 (1894) [12:56]
Kirsten Johnson (piano)
rec. St George’s, Bristol, April 2007
GUILD GMCD 7317 [65:32]
Experience Classicsonline


This is the first volume in a new survey of Amy Beach’s piano music. Expatriate American pianist Kirsten Johnson now lives in England and has written her own fine notes. In this volume she pitches in with some Beach juvenilia and adds two rather more substantial works, Children’s Carnival Op.25 and Trois morceaux caractéristiques Op.28 both written in 1894.

Given that much here is of slight musical value things depend largely on the imaginative and sympathetic approach of the interpreter. Johnson proves a valuable guide in the series of rather generic waltz and dance pieces that Beach wrote when she was an ambitious ten year old. There’s even Mama’s Waltz written when the composer was five! Elsewhere the picture postcard and Schumann-flecked influences are never far away.

It’s when we come to the more substantial fare that we can get a meatier grip on things, even when – as in the case of Sketches Op.15 – the demands are not bone-shaking, though they are allusively Schumannesque. The obvious comparison here is with the multi-volume Arabesque set played by Joanne Polk and you should consider my review of the three volumes that constitute the solo piano works in the light of this Guild entrant. The two competing discs have in any case somewhat complementary takes. Guild’s recorded sound is brighter and more immediate, Arabesque’s is rather more veiled and recessed; the Guild is less warm but has greater clarity. So speaking of the Sketches we find Johnson is the more forthright in In Autumn whilst Polk plays more capriciously with rubati. Polk is decidedly quicker in Dreaming, keeping the left hand figures more mobile whilst Johnson establishes the mood suggested by the title more obviously. Conversely in something like the vivacious Valse Caprice we find that it’s Johnson who takes this in an intoxicating arc, whilst Polk holds back, establishing a sense of "raising the curtain" in the introduction and then taking a less showy route throughout. The Chopinesque ardour of the Op.6 Ballade is taken finely by both players. – very little to choose between them, other than recorded sound.

In the Trois morceaux caractéristiques Johnson is consistently quicker than Polk. Johnson takes the more incisive direction, Polk the more languid and withdrawn – especially true of the opening Barcarolle. In the main though Johnson is less inclined to rubati than Polk, preferring a brisker, crisper approach.

Johnson has certainly opened her account with characterful and vital performances. Engaging, clarified and buoyant they make a good foil for the more introspective profile evinced by Polk.

Jonathan Woolf


 


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