Top 10 Amy Beach recordings

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

A child prodigy, Amy Beach went on to write several works that have been widely performed and recorded, most notably the Piano Quintet and Piano Concerto. Here are 10 of the finest recordings

Born in New Hampshire, Amy Marcy Cheney Beach showed prodigious musical talent at an early age. She later studied with her mother. She gave her first public piano recital aged seven, and in 1885 she made her debut with the Boston Symphony. After her marriage to Dr Henry Beach, she reduced her public appearances to one concert per year and devoted herself to composition. After his death in 1910 she resumed a performing career. Beach composed works in many genres, including a Mass, a symphony, a piano concerto, chamber works, piano solo and vocal works in a Romantic idiom.

Piano Quintet in F Sharp minor, Op 67

Garrick Ohlsson; Takács Quartet

Hyperion

Gramophone Award Winner – Chamber category (2021); Editor's Choice (July 2020)

I have often wondered why the music of Amy Beach is not more loudly acclaimed. As part of a late 19th-century movement of American composers who looked unapologetically for stimulus from Germany – and I am thinking primarily of George Whitefield Chadwick, Arthur Foote and Horatio Parker – Beach stands as probably the most accomplished of the group (a notable point since she did not study in Europe), or at least within the province of chamber music. Her Piano Quintet, the most widely performed of her chamber works, and in which she appeared as pianist on many occasions, is a highly developed work which should be considered part of that canon of quintets led by Schumann and Brahms, and accompanied by other major masterpieces including those by Franck, Dvořák, Stanford, Fauré, Sinding, Reger, Elgar, Suk and Dohnányi.

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Piano Concerto, Op 45

Danny Driver; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Rebecca Miller

Hyperion

Gramophone Awards shortlist – Concerto category (2017); Editor's Choice (March 2017)

This is a big, virtuoso vehicle demanding great endurance and a bravura technique (the first movement lasting nearly 17 minutes is followed by a very difficult vivace perpetuum mobile 5'38" in length). Driver surmounts these demands with real artistry and, in the lovely slow movement, immense sensitivity.

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Sonata in A minor for violin and piano, Op 34

Tasmin Little, John Lenehen

Chandos

Gramophone Editor's Choice (March 2019)

The Beach comes first, and although Chandos have already served it well with an expansive account from Gabrielle Lester (1/04), there’s a flexibility and sense of sweep to Little and Lenehan’s performance that’s utterly persuasive on its own terms: meltingly tender as the pair ease into the first movement’s second group, and dark and questioning in the con dolore slow movement. The two players respond to each other as if by instinct, giving a playful glint to the outer sections of the Scherzo (Little wears her virtuosity with delicious insouciance) and emerging from the storms of the finale with terrific sweep.

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Piano Quintet in F Sharp minor, Op 67

Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective

Chandos

Gramophone Editor's Choice (July 2021)

The album opens with Amy Beach’s arresting and grandiose yet wistful Quintet, Op 67. They attack this repertoire with sensitivity and authority. The ebb and flow and light and shade they achieve through tempo flexibility and texture are great to hear. The sinuous and haunting string melodies in various guises by violinists Elena Urioste and Melissa White, viola player Rosalind Ventris and cellist Laura van der Heijden, and Tom Poster’s dramatic and carefully gauged piano passages, affirm their commitment to this repertoire.

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Quartet for Strings, Op 89. Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op 34. Pastorale for Wind Quartet, Op 151. Dreaming, Op 15 No 3

The Ambache Ensemble

Chandos

Begun in 1921 but not completed for another eight years, Beach’s only String Quartet is entirely different again, a single-movement work based on three Alaskan Inuit tunes and evincing a level – and, more crucially, control – of dissonance beyond anything else in her prolific ouput. Unpublished for 65 years, it makes compelling listening.

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Symphony No 2, 'Gaelic'. Piano Concerto, Op 45

Alan Feinberg; Nashville Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Schermerhorn

Naxos

Gramophone Editor's Choice (June 2003)

Composed in 1898-99, Amy Beach’s ambitious, singularly impressive Piano Concerto is at long last coming in from the cold. An expansively rhetorical Allegro moderato launches the work before a playful perpetuum mobile scherzo and moody Largo (described by its creator as a ‘dark, tragic lament’); the finale (which follows without a break) goes with a delightful swing. In fact, it’s a rewarding achievement all round, full of brilliantly idiomatic solo writing (Beach was a virtuoso pianist herself and performed the work many times) and lent further autobiographical intrigue by its assimilation of thematic material from three early songs.

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Piano Trio in A minor, Op 150

Gould Piano Trio

Resonus

A welcome release from The Gould Piano Trio, now into its third decade, whose repertoire stretches right across this medium. It opens with the Piano Trio (1938) by Amy Beach – its concise movements taking in a wistful ‘song without words’, a deft amalgam of intermezzo and scherzo, then an animated finale which, as with its predecessor, makes spirited use of an Inuit folk song.

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Symphony No 2, 'Gaelic'. Piano Concerto, Op 45

Detroit Symphony Orchestra / Neeme Järvi

Chandos

It is difficult not to hear her symphony as a response to Dvorak's New World, premiered in New York in December 1893, drawing on his ideas of using folk materials. She works effectively with actual Gaelic melodies and has a good command of narrative flow and the shape of a symphonic movement. She can be compared with Parry in British music, whose Third and Fourth Symphonies are just as convincingly played on the same enterprising Chandos label with the London Philharmonic under Matthias Bamert. Parry's Fourth, written some five years earlier and in the same key of E minor as Beach and Dvorak's New World, is closer to Brahms and, in its sequences, to Bach. Beach has taken in Wagner, Liszt and Tchaikovsky and at times echoes the blazing intensity of Bruckner.

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Piano Trio in A minor, Op 150

Neave Trio

Chandos

The Neave are persuasive advocates of the work’s ‘late-Romantic glow’. Their articulation of the swifter passages does them credit and this is a strong alternative [to the Ambache Ensemble recording].

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Theme and Variations for flute & string quartet, Op 80

Emily Beynon and friends

Channel Classics

Amy Beach’s sunlit Theme and Variations for flute and string quartet – a beautifully judged performance here, more than a match for The Ambache’s (Chandos, 12/99) – and Louise Farrenc’s vibrant Trio. Beynon’s playing is splendid throughout and she is ably supported by her circle of friends. The sound is excellent, close-miked without being overpowering and with a natural ambience.


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