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CD: Crotchet

Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
Variations on Balkan Themes Op.60 (1904) [28:30]
Scottish legend Op.54 No.1 (1903) [3:04]
Gavotte fantastique Op.54 No.2 (1903) [3:16]
Children’s Album Op.36 (1897) [9:15]
Transcription (1902) of Richard Strauss’s Serenade Op.17 No. 2 [3:54]
Eskimos, Four Characteristic Pieces Op.64 (1904) [11:04]
Moderato [1:42]
Kirsten Johnson (piano)
rec. St George’s, Bristol, April 2007 (Children’s Album Op.54 Nos.1 and 2, Moderato) and February 2008 (remainder)
Piano Music: Volume Two - The Turn of the Century
GUILD GMCD7329 [60:48]
Experience Classicsonline

This is the second volume in Kirsten Johnson’s admirable survey of the complete piano music of Amy Beach. The first release has already been reviewed and I see no reason whatsoever to modify my view that this is now shaping up to be a very fine, if contrastive cycle to that given by Joanne Polk, whose volumes I reviewed back in 2004.

This particular volume sports a ‘Turn of the Century’ theme and it spans the 1897 Children’s Album to Eskimos and the Variations on Balkan Themes, two important works written in 1904. Moreover it does so with real refinement.

Eskimos is a clever and pictorial four movement work. In the first volume I found Johnson rather quicker than Polk and less inclined to rubati. Here things are rather different. Polk opens Arctic Night with a rather gaunter soundscape and a lot quicker, perhaps hinting at the seeping impressionism of the writing. Johnson however is fresher in The Returning Hunter and I do rather prefer the Guild recorded sound throughout; it’s more lush and cushioning than the Arabesque set. Honours are about even in Exiles. Here Johnson is again slower, and warmer, but Polk still manages to vest the con amore indication even at a more direct speed.

The other major work here is the Variations. Polk is a little more leisurely in the theme itself and in variations I, VII, VIII and the Marcia funerale, which is part of variation VIII. The work owes its origin to the Macedonian-Turkish conflict of the time, and is a series of variations on four themes with one of them making multiple reappearances. Johnson plays with real understanding of the more clement and the more astringent Lisztian elements embodied within it; she’s especially fine in variation III where she balances delicacy and declamation with real and rare acuteness.

Op.54 includes the Scottish legend and the Gavotte fantastique, the latter notable for the tighter rhythms Johnson finds than Polk and for the salon caprice she enjoys in the music making - a truly fine performance. The Children’s Album is delightful but very slight; predicated on dance tunes and rhythms and pleasingly generic. The second, a Gavotte, sounds suspiciously like the Op.54/2 Gavotte fantastique but the March is not too martial and its Music Hall elements also appeal.

With the lovely transcription of Richard Strauss’s Serenade and an undated and brief Moderato to complete the programme we have here another splendidly performed slice of Amy Beach. Both Polk and Johnson have profound strengths in this repertory and there will be adherents of both. I prefer Guild’s sound which may tip things; in any case I very much like Johnson’s playing.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Dan Morgan
(April 2009 Recording of the Month)  



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