Beach Empress of the Night: The Piano Works Series Vol

Volume 4 in Joanne Polk's enterprising Amy Beach series couples two really strong works, but with frustratingly mixed results

Author: 
Andrew Achenbach

Beach Empress of the Night: The Piano Works Series Vol

  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
  • Quintet for Piano and Strings

First, the good news. Joanne Polk and the Lark Quartet team up for a radiantly perceptive account of Amy Beach's masterly Piano Quintet (1905-07). Theirs is a notably thoughtful conception, grander than both comparative rivals in the noble opening movement, yet with no loss of clear-sighted concentration. Music-making of rapt poetry and exquisite tenderness illuminates the progress of the lovely succeeding Andante espressivo, while the finale is as joyously articulate as one could hope to hear. For all the intelligence and dedication displayed by the admirable Martin Roscoe and the Endellion Quartet, to say nothing of the many sterling virtues of Ambache's recent version, I think I would now plump for these outstandingly sensitive and shapely newcomers in preference to either. Sound and balance are first-class.
I'm less happy, though, about the performance and recording of the big-scale Piano Concerto. Composed in 1898-99, its four movements chart a 37-minute course from darkness into light, while at the same time borrowing material from three of Beach's earlier songs (thus lending the whole edifice a strongly autobiographical resonance comprehensively outlined in Adrienne Fried Block's persuasive annotation). Alas, the present display doesn't quite do Beach's commanding inspiration full justice. For starters, the chosen acoustic is comparatively cramped with crowded tuttis and a general want of bloom. Mercifully, the solo instrument emerges relatively unscathed in all of this, so we can at least savour Polk's nimble and affectionate pianism. If only the ECO under Paul Goodwin sounded more geared up for proceedings; as it stands, there's occasionally just a hint of lassitude about its generally polished response (and the expansive first movement, in particular, cries out for a tauter cumulative grip than it receives here). A pity, because Amy Beach's beautifully crafted, warm-hearted and admirably ambitious Op 45 fully deserves a truly first-rate modern recording - in Hyperion's Romantic Piano Concertos series, perhaps?
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