AMY BEACH: Piano Music, Volume 3, The Mature Years – Kirsten Johnson, piano – Guild 7351, 74:43 (TrackList below) [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Audiophile Audition seems to have missed the first two volumes in this series, “The Early Works”, and “The Turn of the Century”, but based on this current (and penultimate) issue, the other two are certainly worth exploring. Amy March Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was one of the most important women composers to have ever lived, and only now is a critical reassessment of her music underway. Part of her obscurity lies in the fact of her devotion to her husband of 25 years, but during the time of this disc (1907-1924) she lost his company with his death in 1910, followed by that of her mother in 1911. During this period Beach travelled to Europe, promoted her music, and came back renewed and refreshed with a sense of commitment to her art. In 1921 she began a long association with the MacDowell Colony, an artists retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire, dedicated to the free and unencumbered cross-discipline of many arts, originally founded by composer Edward MacDowell, and still going strong.
In many ways Beach’s piano music reminds me of Edward MacDowell. There is always a slight whiff of the parlor present, but both of these artists, whose lives did overlap, infused their miniatures with so much more than trite melodies and conventional harmonies. For Beach, her piano music is a series of exquisite tone poems, inextricably wedded to their titles. The beauties of her compositional aptitude are present in the many ways she separates the hands, making each a distinct contributor to the gleaming romantic and impressionistic facades she produces, or the magnificent sense of variety in her technical facility as she constantly searches for new ways of translating verbal and poetic constructs into musical logic. I could listen to this album over and over.
Needless to say, Kirsten Johnson is on top of this music in a big way, and I think if push comes to shove, and even at the higher price, I prefer her series to the other very fine one by Joanne Polk (good as that one is also), for the broad and spaciously-focused sound.
01 Fantasia from Fantasia fugata, Op.87
02 Fugata from Fantasia fugata, Op.87
03 Les Rêves de Colombine, Op.65, Nos.1-5
04 The Lotos Isles
05 Prelude and Fugue, Op.81
06 From Blackbird Hills, Op.83
07 The Fair Hills of Éiré, 0!, Op.91
08 A Hermit Thrush at Eve, Op.92, No.1
09 A Hermit Thrush at Morn, Op.92, No.2
10 From Grandmother’s Garden, Op.97
11 Two Pieces, Op.102
French Romantic and Impressionism… Ivan Ilich