Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
Complete Works for Piano Duo
Variations on Balkan Themes, Op.60c (1904, 2 piano version 1942) [19:30]
Three Pieces for piano 4 hands (1883) [8:07]
Suite for 2 Pianos founded upon Old Irish Melodies Op.104 (1924) [22:22]
Summer Dreams for piano 4 hands Op.47 (1901) [13:52]
Piano Duo Genova and Dimitrov
rec. 2021, Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, WDR Funkhaus, Köln
CPO 555453-2 [63:51]
At the start of her career Amy Beach was considered the “little sister” of the composers of the Second New England School (Edward McDowell, George Whitefield Chadwick, Arthur Foote et al), but after the successful premiere of Beach’s Gaelic Symphony, Chadwick wrote to her to say that she would now have to be considered “… one of the boys”. Of all those 19th Century New England composers, only Beach and McDowell produced a sizable amount of piano music, and McDowell wrote practically nothing for piano duo. Beach produced somewhat more, but even so, all her piano duo music is contained on this one, new disc.
My first reaction on hearing the Three Pieces for piano four-hands (written when Beach was only 16) was that they were reminiscent of McDowell, but given that they were written in 1883 when McDowell had just started to publish, it is doubtful whether Beach would have been familiar with any of McDowell’s music. As Norbert Florian Schuch points out in the notes to this disk, a more likely influence was Schubert, with a little help from Schumann and Mendelssohn. Even this early in her life, Beach’s structural skill is evident, as well as her developing musical style.
The cycle Summer Dreams shows Beach at full maturity. Like the Three Pieces, they were written for domestic consumption, but also demonstrate a number of Beach’s major concerns: love of nature and poetry, and her preoccupation with musical synesthesia-the association of specific colors with specific musical keys or notes. Beach had made such color associations even when little, and here pairs each piece of music with both a color and with a specific poem which is printed in the score. The first piece, Brownies, shows a folk influence, something we will see more of on this disc, as well as a lot of verve. Robin Red Breast is somewhat programmatic in that it utilizes the robin’s song both thematically and harmonically, but it is Beach’s structural sense that stays with the listener. I found Twilight less impressive; it seemed more like a song than a piano piece. We return to the natural world with Katydids, a form of cricket or grasshopper, and again their distinctive sound is used as the fundamental material, even more skillfully than in Robin Red Breast. In the Elfin Tarantella, Beach uses a variety of modulations to portray the dances of Falstaff’s various elves and fairies. The final piece, Twilight, is synesthesia at its height, as Beach uses clashing keys to represent the varying hues of the fading blue of the sky and the rising brightness of the moon.
Jumping ahead about twenty years, we have the Suite for Two Pianos Founded upon Old Irish Folk Melodies Op. 104. As intimated above, Beach always loved folksongs regardless of words or origins; indeed, her last two major chamber compositions were based on Eskimo themes. The suite derives from folksongs appearing in an 1841 article The Native Music of Ireland, the same source for the themes of the two middle movements of her Gaelic Symphony. The Suite has four movements: Prelude, Old Time Peasant Dance, The Ancient Cabin, Finale. There are multiple themes in each movement as well as cyclic connections between them. One is immediately impressed by the skillful writing for two pianos, of which Genova and Dimitrov take full advantage, and by the fact that, regardless of the thick textures that Beach favored in her later music, one never loses sight of the basic folk material, as Schuch points out in his notes. I especially enjoyed the Old Time Peasant Dance with its two themes each elaborated by Beach in different ways. Conversely, the basic material of The Ancient Cabin is integrated with elements of the Prelude to form a synthesis. The Finale is less serious than its predecessors, ending with a mock-serious coda.
Amy Beach never visited the Balkans and the folksongs used in her Op. 60 were played for her by an acquaintance who had done missionary work in Bulgaria. Nevertheless, she found the songs immediately appealing, a feeling that was only increased by what she learned of the perilous conditions endured by the Bulgarians and Macedonians under the Ottoman Empire. The main theme of the Variations is a Macedonian song “O Maiko Moya”, but other songs are used in some of the variations, of which there are twelve. Beach groups them in three subsets, somewhat reminiscent of Parry’s Symphonic Variations. After the statement of “O Maiko Moya”, the first subgroup (Vars. 1-4) contrasts mostly gentle and flowing music with a dramatic interlude as if warning us of possible danger. The second subset (Vars. 5-8) is much more expansive structurally and adds new folk material in Variation 6. The last grouping (Vars. 9-12) is the most serious, with the last variation a huge funeral march – really, more of a dirge. Rather than ending with a triumphant vision of hope for the people of the Balkans, the funeral march just dies away slowly. Beach’s ability to create fascinating variations with a simultaneous political content is masterly, and from a purely musical view, the variations put Beach in the company of her most illustrious contemporaries. The composer herself valued the piece very highly, putting it through multiple revisions over more than thirty years, of which the two-piano version was the last. I was not surprised to learn that one of the earlier versions is for orchestra, although it is uncertain whether that was completed. In view of the power and variety of the piece, an orchestral version would have fully been the equal of her Piano Concerto and Gaelic Symphony.
My first acquaintance with Genova and Dimitrov dates back about ten years, to their disc of Arensky Suites for Two Pianos. The range of composers that the two have recorded is impressive, if not startling. Given their long history as a duo, it’s not surprising that their ensemble playing is practically perfect, but what most impresses me is their ability to produce an almost string-like tone on what is basically a percussive combination. This is a most enjoyable disc that should find a wide audience.
Previous review: Rob Challinor