Barber/Beach Orchestral works

Author: 
Peter Dickinson

Barber/Beach Orchestral works

  • Symphony No. 1
  • (The) School for Scandal Overture
  • Symphony, 'Gaelic'
  • Symphony No. 1
  • (The) School for Scandal Overture
  • Symphony, 'Gaelic'

This is a landmark recording, bringing the Amy Beach Gaelic Symphony back into the catalogue—there was a British recording with the RPO under Karl Krueger in 1968 which never enjoyed wide circulation. Beach was a remarkable child prodigy with a repertoire of some 40 tunes she could sing accurately in the same key at the age of one! She was composing at the age of four and had a good memory. This fluent natural musicianship is evident in all her music and it led more to polished imitation than originality, which hardly matters in a performance as committed as this one. But she was a pioneer as a woman composer. She had to curtail her musical activities when her doctor husband was alive, but soon after he died in 1910 she went off to Europe to make her activity as pianist and composer more widely known. She died in 1944, but the revival of interest in her work is relatively recent.
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. Listening to this symphony cold it would be hard to guess the composer was either an American or a woman. The third movement moves skilfully from its chromatic continuity to the diatonic folk-tunes: the finale has an Elgarian swagger. So this is a valuable opportunity to hear what may be the finest symphony yet written by a woman in a modern performance on CD. The recording, too, is mostly well balanced, although there is some background noise at 3'27''.
Beach now sounds like a successful conservative, but she was more adventurous for her time than Barber was for his, at least in her youth. Barber, too, draws on established European models. This is not a particularly sparkling performance of his Overture—Sheridan's The School for Scandal has more brilliance than this reading of the music. It was Barber's first orchestral piece and the Symphony No. 1 came three years later in 1936. This is a convincing performance of a cohesive one-movement work which learns its lessons from Brahms, Prokofiev and Sibelius. The performance shows off the Detroit Symphony well, especially the oboe solo at the opening of the Andante (12'12''), and the typically Barber 6/8 scherzo (8'00'') is thoroughly neat. Everywhere the lyrical aspects are beautifully done, but the timpani sounds oddly flat at the start of the last chord of all. The Barber symphony also fills a gap in the British catalogue and the whole venture, encouragingly labelled ''American Series: Volume 1,'' is another commendable initiative on behalf of American music.'

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