Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
Piano Music Vol. 4 – The Late Works
see end of review for track-listing
Kirsten Johnson (piano)
rec. 13-14 July 2011, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
GUILD GMCD 7387 [63:58]
What a glorious cycle this has been. Volume 2 was one of my Recordings of the Year 2009 (review) and its successor very nearly made it to last year’s list (review). (vol. 1 was reviewed here and here). Beach was new to me first time around – as was Kirsten Johnson – but the thrill of discovery was undiminished with Volume 3. I certainly hoped this final instalment – The Late Works – would be as rewarding as its predecessors, both musically and sonically. Seconds into this disc and it’s clear this is going to be yet another treat. Johnson’s intuitive, unassuming pianism is backed up by a recording of clarity and poise.
As Johnson avers in her lucid liner-notes – which strike a very good balance between description and analysis – the restless Nocturne is anything but a dreamy interlude. Beach’s writing is direct and unsentimental, with just enough harmonic sweetness to prevent the music tipping into unwelcome aridity. The Wyastone Leys acoustic brings out Johnson’s emphasis on articulation and focus. The rhythms and stentorian chords of the Tyrolean waltz-fantasy superbly wrought. That’s not to suggest a lack of charm or loveliness; the latter quality is omnipresent in The Old Chapel by Moonlight, whose soft meanderings are very atmospheric indeed. Ditto the sleep-inducing rock-a-bye of A Cradle Song and the mesmerising crystalline quality of By the Still Waters.
There’s an acuity of observation in Beach’s writing, underlined by the aphoristic but characterful miniatures that make up From Six to Twelve. I had to marvel at the easy rhythmic strokes of Canoeing, the point and animation in Secrets of the Attic and the warmth of A Fire-side Ceremonial. What a powerful sense of communion, of simple gifts gratefully shared. Also, style and content are always in equilibrium; the Boy Scouts March is small but perfectly formed. It’s all magically played and so beautifully recorded. I just can’t imagine Beach’s legacy better served than it is here.
There are two keen intellects at work in this repertoire; Beach, who balances outward pictorialism with disarming inner discipline, and Johnson, who responds to – and so gently reconciles – these subtle tensions. Just sample Young Birches, which combines suppleness and sinew or the brief shimmer of A Humming-bird. Even in Out of the Depths there’s a pleasing balance between scale and effect. Musical seams are never mined to exhaustion and programming – so important in anthologies of this kind – ensures telling changes of mood and tempo.
Some of the most pellucid writing can be found in the Five Improvisations. Surely this is a distillation of all that’s gone before. Easeful and inventive, this is music and music-making of joy and contentment. Indeed, as artistic summations go this could hardly be more impressive.
Music of striking character and charm, superbly played; a fitting conclusion to this fine cycle.
Dan Morgan
Music of striking character and charm, superbly played.


Nocturne, Op. 107 [3:45]
Tyrolean Valse-Fantaisie, Op. 116 [9:22]
The Old Chapel by Moonlight, Op. 106 [3:50]
A Cradle Song of the Lonely Mother, Op. 108 [4:16]
By the Still Waters, Op. 114 [2:58]
From Six to Twelve, Op. 119
No. 1 Sliding on the Ice [1:33]
No. 2 The First Mayflowers [1:58]
No. 3 Canoeing [1:13]
No. 4 Secrets of the Attic [1:09]
No. 5 A Camp-fire Ceremonial [3:11]
No. 6 Boy Scouts March [1:26]
A Bit of Cairo [2:08]
A September Forest [5:13]
Three Pianoforte Pieces, Op. 128
No. 1 Scherzino: A Peterborough Chipmunk [1:17]
No. 2 Young Birches [2:38]
No. 3 A Humming-bird [1:06]
Out of the Depths, Op. 130 [3:03]
Improvisations, Op. 148
No. 1 Lento, molto tranquillo [2:35]
No. 2 Allegretto grazioso e capriccioso [1:05]
No. 3 Allegro con delicatezza [1:11]
No. 4 Molto lento e tranquillo [2:18]
No. 5 Largo maestoso [2:50]
Far Awa’ [2:20]