Beach Piano concerto; Symphony No 2

One of the most valuable releases yet in Naxos’s American Classics series

Author: 
Andrew Achenbach

Beach Piano concerto; Symphony No 2

  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
  • Symphony, 'Gaelic'

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 performedthe work many times) and lent furtherautobiographical intrigue by its assimilation ofthematic material from three early songs.

Much as I appreciate the gentle perception of Joanne Polk’s 1999 account with Paul Goodwin and the ECO, Alan Feinberg brings extra charisma to bear without any loss ofdelicacy or poetry, and his collaboration with Kenneth Schermerhorn and the Nashville Symphony undoubtedly generates greater thrust and spontaneity. The recording, too, is more pleasingly spacious, if a little lacking in body (I prefer the meatier piano timbre on the Arabesque disc).

Following the success of her 1889 Mass in E flat, Beach knew that she needed to produce a large-scale symphony to cement her reputation; it was the Boston première of Dvorák’s New World that finally spurred her into action. Responding to the Czech master’s exhortation that American composers should turn tospirituals, plantation songs and minstrel-show music for inspiration, Beach observed in a letter to the Boston Herald: ‘We of the North should be far more likely to be influenced by theold English, Scotch or Irish songs, inherited with our literature from our ancestors.’ Forher Op 32 Symphony, Beach selected fourIrish melodies of ‘simple, rugged and unpretentious beauty’, moulding any additional themes ‘in the same idiom and spirit’.

That the Gaelic Symphony (1894-96) won golden opinions from the outset comes as no surprise, given its big heart, irresistible charm and confident progress. Happily, Schermerhorn and his eager Nashville band more than hold their own by the side of Neeme Järvi and the Detroit SO. Theirs is a convincingly paced, tidy performance with real fire in its belly and plenty of character. The sound is truthfully balanced and eminently vivid, if not as opulent as Chandos’s 1991 production.

So, a thoroughly enjoyable issue, whose claims are strengthened by a lucid booklet-essay from Beach scholar Adrienne Fried Block.

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