RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
Piano Works: Vol. 3 - The Mature Years
Kirsten Johnson (piano)
rec. 4-5 March 2010, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
Track-listing at end of review
GUILD GMCD 7351 [74:43]
A number of fine piano recordings have crossed my desk over the years, but few have given me as much pleasure as the second volume of piano music by Amy Beach, most beautifully played by Kirsten Johnson (review). Indeed, I was so smitten that I made it one of my picks of the year for 2009. This might explain why I was so eager to hear this third instalment, a well-filled disc of Beach’s later pieces. Given Johnson’s real affinity for this composer and Guild’s exemplary sonics, this promised to be a cracker.
And, believe me, it is. The commanding octaves of the Fantasia may give way to music of disarming simplicity, but there’s no mistaking the keen intellect at work here, the Fugato combining rigour with rhapsody. There’s more of the latter in the fluttering figures of La Fée de la fontaine, as gossamer-light as one could wish for. There’s a welcome blend of focus and feeling in Johnson’s playing, a cherishable and all-too-rare quality these days. Just listen to the subtle rhythms and gentle inflections of Le Prince gracieux and the amorous little waltz that follows; dynamics are finely controlled, details rendered with a mix of precision and warmth. Sous les étoiles has a classical symmetry and proportion that’s surely Schumannesque. The rollicking rhythms of the harlequin’s dance are superbly articulated.
Thus far this disc is every bit as captivating as its predecessor. The Lotos Isle is infused with a misty languor - better still, a ‘mild-eyed melancholy’ - that resonates in the mind long after the final notes have slipped their moorings and drifted away. The cadences of Tennyson’s poem are well caught with Johnson’s supremely refined touch a joy to hear. This is very different from the stentorian chords that open the Op. 81 Prelude and Fugue, which thunder forth with masculine energy. Yet Beach has an irresistible urge to wander - in the best Romantic tradition - so form is apt to give way to fancy. Yet even here one senses a governing logic or structure, so the music never seems aimless or rhetorical.
Beach was interested in folk music - take her Variations on Balkan Themes, for instance - so it’s no surprise to find that From Blackbird Hills is subtitled ‘Omaha Tribal Dance’. Prancing rhythms co-exist with music of surprising inwardness, yet another of those now familiar juxtapositions that make Beach’s music so fascinating. And speaking of folk tunes, The Fair Hills of Éiré, O! is injected with just the right amount of pathos; this ability to hold fast to the music’s sentiment and not give way to sentimentality is one of Johnson’s sterling qualities. Speaking of which, the silvery tones of A Hermit Thrush at Eve ‘in the orginal key but an octave lower’ are simply gorgeous. There’s an arresting stillness to this performance that’s entirely apt, the Guild team capturing every vibration and tremor with astonishing fidelity.
Indeed, this is one of the very best piano recordings I’ve heard; the acoustic seems well nigh ideal, as does the balance, and that makes already fine playing sound all the more immersive. The botanical bounties of Grandmother’s Garden bloom with the same ear-catching colours that permeate so much of Beach’s music; Morning Glories appear in a cool spray of sound, Heartsease fading over a gentle, falling bass. The Tchaikovskian Mignonette and the more robust Rosemary and Rue add plenty of shape and texture to this deftly sketched display. As for Honeysuckle, the easy burble of Beach’s writing here at times reminds me of Gottschalk. After all this progression comes the valedictory - and sometimes Joplinesque - Farewell to Summer and the highly animated Dancing Leaves.
This is a well-programmed collection, with enough variety to keep one fully engaged to the end. That’s not a given in anthologies of this kind, and all the more reason to applaud this enterprise as a whole. Liner-notes written by the artists themselves aren’t always a success either, but Johnson’s strike a good balance between description and analysis. I ended my review of the last volume wondering whether that disc would be a Recording of the Year. It was, and this one is likely to be too.
One of the very best piano recordings I’ve heard.
Fantasia from Fantasia fugata, Op. 87 (publ. 1923) [2:05]
Fugata from Fantasia fugata, Op. 87 [4:04]
Les Rêves de Colombine, Op. 65, Nos. 1-5 (1907)
La Fée de la fontaine[3:30]
Le Prince gracieux [3:56]
Valse amoureuse [2:47]
Sous les étoiles [3:53]
Danse d’Arlequin [4:18]
The Lotos Isles [?1914) (3:32]
Prelude and Fugue, Op. 81 (publ. 1918)
From Blackbird Hills, Op. 83 (publ. 1922) [4:36]
The Fair Hills of Éiré, 0!, Op. 91 (1921) [4:33]
A Hermit Thrush at Eve, Op. 92 (1921)
No. 1 [5:03]
No. 2 [4:28]
From Grandmother’s Garden, Op. 97 (1921)
Morning Glories [1:13]
Rosemary and Rue [4:11]
Two Pieces, Op. 102 (publ. 1924)
Farewell Summer [2:39]
Dancing Leaves [1:29]