The Boston Scene
Here’s an area of the piano’s repertoire that is not often visited. Nor is it at all common to hear an 1873 grand by Chickering, the leading American maker of the 19th century (Hans von Bülow used one for the world premiere of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in Boston). Parallel-strung, it has an attractively mellow tone, though even its recent restoration has been unable to entirely eliminate the ‘dumf’ of the pedal action.
All six of these American composers were members of the Harvard Musical Association (founded 1837 and from whose ranks the original members of the Boston Symphony were drawn). None of them inhabits the summit of Mount Olympus; rather they toil happily in the sunlit foothills somewhere below the peaks of Mendelssohn, Dvořák and, especially, Grieg. I failed to find much evidence, pace the very good booklet, of ‘the harmonic languages of Brahms and Wagner’ in the attractive Rhapsody, the longest work on the disc at 8'44", by the long-lived Margaret Ruthven Lang (1867-1972).
Despite the modest ambition of the 23 separate movements, and while there is nothing too technically taxing for the pianist or demanding for the listener, these are well-crafted, melodic character pieces of instant appeal. Best of all is Arthur Foote’s Suite No 1 (1886) in four short movements (Prelude, Fugue, Romance and Capriccio), which might usefully find a place in a recital today. One piece will be familiar to every reader: Ethelbert Nevin’s ‘Narcissus’, No 4 of his Water Scenes, Op 13, once de rigueur for all drawing-room pianists. This, however, is the excellent Artem Belogurov’s one miss-hit, curiously laboured and lumpy, and entirely lacking the airy grace of Philip Martin (Hyperion, 11/03). Still, it’s hard to hear ‘Narcissus’ in any performance now without recalling the still-hilarious 1952 recording of it by Joyce Grenfell and Norman Wisdom.