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American Romantics - The Boston Scene
Arthur FOOTE (1853-1937)

Suite No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15
Arthur WHITING (1861-1936)
Bagatelles for the Piano
John Knowles PAINE (1839-1906)
Three Piano Pieces, Op 41 (No. 3)
In the Country, Op 26 (Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 10)
George Whitefield CHADWICK (1854-1931)
Five Pieces (Nos. 2 and 5)
Ethelbert NEVIN (1862-1901)
Water Scenes, Op. 13
Margaret Ruthven LANG (1867-1972)
Rhapsody in E minor, Op. 21
Artem Belogurov (Chickering piano, 1873)
rec. 2013, St John’s Episcopal Church, Charlestown, Massachusetts, USA
PIANO CLASSICS PCL0080 [69:56]

If you were asked to give the name of any well-respected piano manufacturer from the USA, past or present, you’d probably find it a lot easier, had the question referred rather to Europe or the Far East. The name of Baldwin might get a few answers, perhaps Kimball, and those European giants like Steinway who set up subsidiary outlets in the States. The Boston-based Chickering brand might not be on the tip of everyone’s tongue, despite being the leading manufacturer across the Atlantic, and indeed, one of the most respected and innovative companies in the world.

Tamar Hestrin-Grader’s informative sleeve-note on Chickering & Sons of Boston informs us that Chickering was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition; Liszt is said to have owned two. The brand was regularly found both in domestic settings and on the concert stage in the USA. Hans von Bülow premiered Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto in Boston on a Chickering in 1875. Sadly the company closed in 1983. The instrument used on the present CD is apparently an elegantly-carved grand built around 1873 with, according to Hestrin-Grader, a ‘long sweetly singing sustain so characteristic of Chickerings’. It is parallel-strung, rather than overstrung as with today’s instruments, and this can account for its subtle difference in tone – something that emerges as especially favourable for the music recorded here.

The CD is actually entitled American Romantics – The Boston Scene, so there’s no prize for guessing the kind of music on offer from some of the leading New England composers of the period. As essentially short pieces, sometimes cast in the descriptive or character genre, they clearly inhabit the same world as Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms. Each has something decidedly original to say at a time before styles shifted towards a taste for modernism and the avant-garde.

The opening work, Foote’s D minor Suite was composed in 1886, and each of its four movements certainly has a good deal of musical interest on display. The first two movements, designated Prelude and Fugue respectively, show Foote’s interest in the Baroque period, although the Fugue emerges as far more than just an academic exercise. There is decided passion in the third piece, Romance, while the Capriccio is a definite showpiece, so effectively mixing scales and crashing chords.

Arthur Whiting’s Bagatelles were written in 1895, the year the composer moved from Boston to New York. The opening Caprice provides a lively starter where most if not all of the thematic material is presented in the first four bars. Steven Ledbetter’s excellent sleeve-notes on the music itself understandably uses American terminology throughout – ‘measure’ for ‘bar’, ‘sixteenths’ for ‘semiquavers’. The ensuing Idylle evokes the calm of a Chopin Nocturne, and is set in D flat major, a favoured key from the Polish composer for a number of similar essays. The Bagatelle moves excitedly, its writing suggesting a light waltz, while the closing Humoreske – in the slightly darker key of E minor – conjures up an atmosphere of mystery.

John Knowles Paine, according to Ledbetter, is the long-forgotten father of serious American music. He was the first American composer to write a large-scale work (his Mass in D, completed in the early 1860s) that could and did win acclaim at a performance in Berlin, the heart of the nineteenth-century musical establishment. In his piano music, he showed a greater allegiance to some of the accepted European masters, though as his Fuga giocosa, the third of his Three Piano Pieces, attests – it’s actually based on a baseball refrain, “Over the fence is out, boys!” – he had no difficulty combining cheerful enjoyment with seemingly more serious formal restraints. The ten short pieces from his In the Country, (1886) – of which six are recorded here – each sets out to capture an image implicit in the title, from a Schubertian stream for The Mill (No. 7), bird calls in Woodnotes (No. 1), the folksy energy of the Village Dance (No. 5), or the happiness of Welcome Home (No. 10), also the most brilliant of the set.

George Whitefield Chadwick was one of the central figures of the second generation that began to use American folk and popular elements in their concert works as a way of expressing their national identity. His characteristic love of colourful effect, spirited rhythm, and warm melody can be heard in the two pieces included here, and taken from a set of five ‘character pieces’ published in1905. Dans le canot (In the Canoe) (No. 2) is a lyrical barcarolle, while Les grenouilles (The Frogs) (No. 5) is a fanciful mood-piece which alludes to the jerky motions of these small amphibians, and the croaking sounds they make.

Ethelbert Nevin’s career was cut short by ill health and, quite by chance, influences of the similarly-short-lived Chopin can be heard in his output. His Water Scenes consist of five character-pieces with images related in some way to the classical element – Dragon Fly moves with a constantly-repeated rapid rhythmic figure, Ophelia suggest the tragic end of Hamlet’s love, drowning in a quiet stream amidst garlands of flowers, and Water Nymph presents a graceful image of a creature gliding in a gently waltz. Narcissus is, without doubt, the best-known piece on the CD, and it’s good to be able to hear it in context, rather than as an accompaniment perhaps for some comic scene, mime, or other action. Barcarolle shows a considerable increase in tempo from Chadwick’s earlier example (Track 16), but which does then create a suitably impressive finale for Nevin’s set of pieces.

Arguably the musical highlight of the CD is the final track, the Rhapsody in E minor by Margaret Ruthven Lang. The first woman to have an orchestral work performed by the Boston Symphony, she composed actively until 1909, when her father died. Afterwards, she gave up composition entirely, and devoted herself to writing religious tracts, although she continued to attend Boston Symphony concerts even after her 100th birthday and, to this day, still holds the record for the longest subscription. While she destroyed all her orchestral music, she left us with piano works, songs, and choral compositions. The E minor Rhapsody clearly shows the influence of the harmonic language of Wagner and Brahms – she had met the former when, as an eight-year-old child, her family visited the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, prior to its official opening. The work is actually headed with an epigraph of two verses from Victor Hugo’s ‘Voix intérieures’ and, in keeping with the sentiment of Hugo’s lines. Lang’s work exudes equally deeply-felt passion, moving from the strong declamation of the opening – ‘Since every soul that wanders here below yields up its flame, or scent, or melody’ – via some most lyrical chromaticism to a conclusion of Lisztian rapture: ‘To you, here in my arms, tonight, I give all that is best in me!’ The work shares its key with Grieg’s early Piano Sonata in E minor of 1865, and, echoes of his writing and modulations can also be discerned here. If anywhere on the CD, the particular sound quality of the Chickering instrument is ideally matched to the expressive quality of Lang’s work, where climaxes are still powerfully delivered, but are then nicely tempered by the parallel-strung instrument’s penchant for a sense of slight dynamic restraint.

Pianist Artem Belogurov was born in Latvia, grew up in Odessa, and then moved to Boston, to study at the New England Conservatory. His playing encompasses everything needed to get the very best from each track recorded here – a flawless technique, a keen eye for colour and characterisation and, most importantly, an obvious empathy with the music itself. With a recording that also faithfully conveys the distinctive tonal qualities of the Chickering period-instrument, this excellent CD is a most welcome addition to the catalogue. On the one hand it contains some very attractive and essentially unfamiliar piano music, all very well played: on the other hand, it provides a welcome insight into what was going on across the Atlantic before modern communications opened up the American music-scene at the start of the twentieth century, and just as romanticism was somewhat losing its immediate appeal.

Philip R Buttall
 


 

 




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