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American Discoveries
Priscilla Alden BEACH (1902-1970)
City Trees (1928) [4.26]
Linda Robbins COLEMAN (b. 1954)
For a Beautiful Landscape (1996) [10.46]
Alexandra PIERCE (1934 - 2021)
Behemoth, in five short movements (1976) [15.09]
Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra/Reuben Blundell
rec. 2019-2020, Upper Darby Performing Arts Centre, USA

At just over half an hour this is effectively a CD single but it contains three interesting works by American women composers who are unknown - at least here in the UK.

As far as I can tell, Priscilla Alden Beach is no relation to that fine composer Amy Beach. It seems that much of her work is now lost, which is a tragedy bearing in mind what a fine and moving piece City Trees is. Written in 1928, it is in ternary form with a strong climactic point perfectly placed in the structure. It is in many ways Impressionistic but has a Romantic undercurrent which, the booklet writer admits, may remind us of Howard Hanson.  Beach may well have stopped composing later in life, as she took to other work - for example, as a laboratory technician and an author of books about pets!

There is much American music, particularly of the last century, which is often inspired by the country’s extraordinary landscape and wildlife. Coleman’s For a Beautiful Land is such a one, having started life as a celebration of the composer’s home state of Iowa. In a sense, its antecedents lie in Virgil Thomson’s film score and suite for the ‘Louisiana Story’; I can also hear echoes of Copland. It seems that I really should have heard of Linda Robbins Coleman, as she has received many commissions and honours in the USA and this work has had, we read, over a hundred performances around the world.

It is, to quote the notes, “tonal, rhapsodic and free flowing” and quite uplifting, but I have to say that its success comes as something of a surprise to me. Those notes give a clear, analytical outline of its growth and ideas but its abrupt ending doesn’t, it seems to me, really prove effective.

The longest and, for me, the most impressive piece on the disc is the award-winning Behemoth by Alexandra Pierce. This is a tone poem in five short movements and was inspired by the “awesome creature” found in the Book of Job, “his bones as tubes of brass, his limbs are like bars of iron”. The harmonic language, typical of the time, is suitably tough and reminded me of composers like Humphrey Searle and Peter Racine Fricker. I can’t be sure if the work uses serial technique but there are certainly many passages where the language is free and atonal. Especially fine and fascinating is the orchestration, which is always clear, colourful and often angular. It set me wondering what else I might be able to hear by this composer.

The Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra is described as “one of the most distinguished community orchestras in the world” and they mostly cope well with these unfamiliar scores. However, the congested recording, especially at climaxes, does them no favours. Their conductor, Reuben Blundell, has a distinguished CV, including gaining a doctorate in conducting at the Eastman School of Music.

Gary Higginson

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