After something of a gap we now have the third instalment of
Kirsten Johnsonís survey of the delightful piano music of Amy
Beach. Iíve reviewed the previous two (vol.
2) and can reiterate how enjoyable itís been listening to
Johnson, and also, once again, to her disc rival and compatriot
Joanne Polk on Arabesque (the relevant Arabesque volumes for
points of comparison in this case are Z6704 and Z6721 Ė see
This volume selects ĎThe Mature Yearsí, so we approach Beach
between roughly 1907 Ė when she was 40 - and 1923, when she
still had another two decades to live. A Hermit Thrush is heard
at Eve, and at Morn, the two pieces forming Beachís Op.92. The
impressionistic fleck of the former is a signal of her immersion
in Gallic writing. This quality is the more explicitly realised
by Polk, whereas Johnson prefers a more beguiling, softer and
rounder sound world. The result is that Johnson stresses the
romanticism at the musicís heart, whilst Polk seeks out the
Debussian. The Hermit Thrush at Eve again sees an interpretative
divergence. Polk reveals the harmonic steps more obviously;
Johnson prefers a fresher innocence, and is less avian. The
music sounds far more modern, proto-Messiaen in small places,
with Polk, more dappled with Johnson.
This is a small example of a general truth in these performances.
Both are impressive however, in their own way, in the Prelude
and Fugue where there is, in any case, somewhat less room
for interpretative manoeuvre. Polk, true to form, etches deeper
and darker and is more adamantine, and more dramatic. But Johnson
takes a more direct route in this Lisztian powerhouse piece,
and is good as well. In From Grandmotherís Garden Johnson
is once again more limpid in her romanticism, and less assertive
tonally and chordally too. She has the confidence to unveil
Beachís miniatures naturally and with unforced generosity. Some,
however, will prefer Arabesque who offer a more burnished sound
Where I do definitely prefer Johnson is in her pert and frisky
waltz, the third of Les RÍves de Colombine, the earliest
of this selection, written in 1907. Polkís crinolines are a
bit starchy here, but with Johnson one senses that this Valse
amoureuse is going to end with a clinch on the balcony.
These things are very much a question of personal preference.
If you like a bold, sometimes even jarring, stylistically Gallic,
harmonically questing (in part) Beach, then go for Polk. If
you prefer a more carefree, light-hearted, beautifully deft
Beach, go for Johnson. If you canít decide, go for broke and
go for both.
see also review
by Dominy Clements RECORDING
OF THE MONTH July