BEACH: Piano Quintet; ALAN LOUIS SMITH: Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman – Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano/ Warren Jones, piano/ Anne-Marie McDermott, piano/ Ani Kavafian, violin/ Priscilla Lee, Cello/ Escher String Quartet – CMS 6 5373 82524 2 7, 67:28 **** [Distr. by Albany]:

It’s been a while since I last listened to Amy Beach’s lovely and irresistible Piano Quintet, mainly because the last recording I had was this horrible old Vox CD that had thin sound and even thinner playing. There seem to be two others currently available beside this one, and I have heard that the all-Beach Chandos album is very good. But I have trouble imagining that it can top this really lush account by the Escher Quartet, an ensemble new to me and looking very young by their group photo (they were formed in 2005). But they have certainly picked up the spirit of Beach’s romantic American idiom, and play with a sweet delicacy of tone that is certainly attractive and most likely enviable to other more noted and accomplished ensembles. Indeed, it makes me wish I had sought out this work earlier, instead of the long years of neglect.

Accompanying this fine effort is a new work by Alan Louis Smith, who among other duties serves as the Chair of Keyboard Studies at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California. This interesting song cycle is based on the diary of one Margaret Frink, who in 1850 crossed the American continent in a covered wagon. The texts, given literally, are presented in a mostly syllabic manner, with great delicacy and attention to the words, allowing the mezzo (here sung by the admirable Stephanie Blythe) to present the selections from this extraordinary journey in as plaintive and forthright manner as possible. The music is delightful, completely unencumbered by any strange technical assertions that might clutter the presentation, and Smith is to be commended on his originality and sense of dramatic presentation.

CMS (Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center) is rapidly becoming one of my favorite labels, and this after only a couple of years in existence. Their sound quality is superb (though I wish they would bite the bullet and go hi-res surround) and their booklet the highest quality.

— Steven Ritter