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American Quintets
Amy Marcy Cheney BEACH (1867-1944)
Piano Quintet in F sharp minor, Op. 67 (1907) [28:33]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Dover Beach, Op. 3 (1931) [7:25]
Florence Beatrice PRICE (1887-1953)
Piano Quintet in A minor (c. 1935?) [27:41]
Matthew Rose (bass)
Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective
rec. 2020, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK
Premiere Recording (Price)
CHANDOS CHAN20224 [63:58]

This newly released disc from Chandos features two female American composers who had much in common. Both had their talents nurtured by their mothers and went on to become gifted pianists and composers. Both married professionally distinguished men, and went on to forge their careers under their married names, as was the custom of the time. Finally, both had to maintain their careers in a male-dominated profession. That’s where the similarities end. Beach had the good fortune to be promoted by her publisher during her lifetime, so maintained something of a profile. Price, on the other hand, had another hurdle to overcome being an African American. At the time of her death she was virtually unknown, with many of her manuscripts lost. It was only in 2009 that a cache of them were discovered in the attic of an abandoned house in Illinois, and another ten years were to elapse before they were actually published and disseminated. There’s very little of her music on CD, but I had the good fortune to review the Naxos recording of her Symphonies 1 and 4 in 2019.

Beach’s Piano Quintet, the most widely performed of her chamber works, dates from 1907 and received its premiere the following year in Boston by the Hoffmann Quartet with the composer at the keyboard. Its muscular weight and epic nature suggest a Brahmsian influence, which is no coincidence as she’d performed his F minor Piano Quintet in 1900. It’s a wonderfully constructed work, expertly scored in the late Romantic idiom. Cast in three movements, the opening movement sounds restless and overflows with melodic largesse. It’s almost orchestral in texture. The slow movement is one of aching beauty and dreamy haze and the ensemble inject so much emotional intensity into it. Their dynamic variance, ranging from expansive fortes to whispering pianissimos, delivers breathtaking impact. The Allegro agitato finale contrasts bold propulsive forward momentum with a central section lyrically savoured. There are several alternative versions on disc, my favorite being the ASV recording with Martin Roscoe and the Endellion String Quartet. This latest can stand proudly shoulder to shoulder with them. 

It’s a tragedy that Florence Price not only faced the barriers of race and gender, but influential figures in the musical world at the time underestimated her worth as a composer and turned down her requests for performance opportunities. Thankfully the balance is now being redressed, with her music attracting interest resulting in a growing number of concert performances and recordings. The late Romantic Piano Quintet in A minor, one of the works discovered in the Illinois abandoned home, is here receiving its Premiere Recording. The date of its composition isn’t known exactly. It’s in four movements. The work is steeped in African American culture, with spirituals and hymns providing much of the groundwork. I hear flavours of Chausson and Franck in the Andante second movement. The delightful Juba movement comes third, mimicking the stomping dances of the slave plantations of the Deep South. An aggressive high-powered scherzo-like finale, played with gusto and panache brings this captivating work to a brilliant close.

The two piano quintets bookend Barber’s Dover Beach for medium voice and string quartet. A setting of the famous poem of Matthew Arnold, it was penned in 1931 and first performed privately in Philadelphia on 12 May 1932. I first became acquainted with it in the famous 1968 recording by Fischer-Dieskau and the Juilliard Quartet. The bass Matthew Rose sings the vocal line. He makes a superb job of evoking mystery and atmosphere, building up to a potent climax. The dark qualities of his voice have a haunting quality and make a profound impact. The ensemble offers inspiring and discreet support. A full text of the poem is included in the booklet.

Beautifully recorded, the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective offer compelling performances.  They've been marvelously captured and balanced by the Chandos recording engineers. The recording is a delight from beginning to end and it gets my warmest recommendation.

Stephen Greenbank

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