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CMS Studio Recordings

Amy Cheney BEACH (1867-1944)
Piano Quintet in F sharp minor, Op.67 (1908) [28:23]
Alan Louis SMITH (b.1955)
Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman (2006) [32:45]
Anne-Marie McDermott (piano); Escher Quartet (Quintet); Stephanie Blythe (mezzo); Warren Jones (piano); Ani Kavafian (violin); Priscilla Lee (cello) (Vignettes)
rec. Rose Studio, Lincoln Center, New York, May 2008 (Quintet), February 2008 (Vignettes)
Experience Classicsonline

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in her lifetime before being relegated, like many of her works, to obscurity through being considered old-fashioned or outdated.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 latest.

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.

Tony Haywood


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