Amy BEACH (1867-1944)

Piano Music Volume 3 Ė The Mature Years
Fantasia fugata Op.87 (1923) [6:09]
Les RÍves de Colombine Op. 65 (1907) [18:24]
The Lotos Isles (c. 1914) [3:32]
Prelude and Fugue Op.81 (1912-14) [10:16]
From Blackbird Hills Op.83 (1922) [4:35]
The Fair Hills of …irť, O! Op.91 (1921) [4:33]
A Hermit Thrush at Eve Op. 92 No.1 [5:03]; A Hermit Thrush at Morn Op.92 No.2 (1921) [4:28]
From Grandmotherís Garden Op.97 (1921) [13:34]
Two Pieces Op.102 (1924) [4:09]
Kirsten Johnson (piano)
rec. March 2010, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth
GUILD GMCD 7351 [74:43]

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. 1 vol. 2 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 review).

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 than Guild.

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.

Jonathan Woolf

If you prefer a more carefree, light-hearted, beautifully deft Beach, go for Johnson.