That Amy Beach is an important figure in musical history there
can be no doubt. As the first American woman composer of any note,
she enjoyed great critical and public acclaim with a string of
works, a handful of which are slowly becoming repertory pieces
again. The Piano Quintet is possibly among the best examples;
it was a great success in her lifetime before being relegated,
like many of her works, to obscurity through being considered
old-fashioned or outdated. The Diane Ambache Ensemble rescued
it – as they have done with so many other women composers – and
their live performances and 1997 recording for Chandos put it
firmly back on the map for a new audience. It has now a number
of other good recordings, of which this present release is the
Beach was largely
self-taught, learning her craft by consuming the great classics.
It’s obvious from the outset that she knew her European Romantics,
with that long-arched opening unison melody immediately recalling
the Brahms Piano Quintet. The finale has a vivacious energy
worthy of Schumann, though tinged with moments of regret and
melancholy. The melodies really are memorable and the whole
thing is beautifully constructed in a tight three-movement form.
The slow movement is the expressive centre of the work, and
has a sensual quality that recalls Wagner – indeed, the climactic
interrupted cadence at 8:21 could be straight out of Tristan.
This is a marvellous performance, full of passion, superbly
played by all and doing the piece full credit.
Alan Louis Smith
is a pianist, teacher and composer now based at the University
of Southern California. His Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman
is a half-hour setting of words by another important and
largely unsung woman in American history, Margaret Frink. She
kept a diary of her family’s pioneering and arduous journey
across the huge continent in 1850, an adventure into the unknown
that she documents with an engaging mix of frankness and poetry.
Smith’s liner-note gives details of his musical thoughts when
setting the text, and he admits to adopting quite a simple,
syllabic approach for clarity and understanding. There is no
avant-garde experimentation here; in fact, it complements the
Beach perfectly in its simplicity and Romantic celebration of
America’s past. The opening whole tone flourish – which appears
at intervals - recalls Debussy, and there are many moments where,
almost inevitably, the neo-classical techniques and pungent
harmonies of Copland and Virgil Thomson come to mind. The second
section, ‘There’s a Lady’, is one such, a simple waltz that
uses chromatic side-stepping and little Prokofiev-like harmonic
puns to great effect.
It was first performed
by the musicians on this disc, and they are obviously thoroughly
intimate with the piece, particularly the mezzo Stephanie Blythe
who, to her credit, enunciates the words so clearly as to make
the text in the liner-note virtually redundant. It’s not an earth-shakingly
original piece, but very heartfelt in its word-painting and superbly
played and sung. It may not find an easy life in the concert hall
but is very welcome on disc as an interesting filler to the Beach,
and the sound quality is exceptional.