Thursday 29 July 2021

American Quintets: Kaleidescope Chamber Collective's debut recording features the 1st recording of a mature Florence Price work alongside Amy Beach and Samuel Barber

American Quintets - Beach, Barber, Price; Kaleidescope Chamber Collective; CHANDOS

American Quintets
- Beach, Barber, Price; Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective; CHANDOS

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 July 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two passionately Romantic American piano quintets, both inspired by the music of Brahms and Dvorak yet each creating its own distinctive voice

Two American women composers, both born in the 19th century (20 years apart), both known by their married names, both living well into the mid-20th century, both prolific and having significant success in their lifetimes. Yet the posthumous history of their music has been very different. The music of Amy Beach (1867-1944) has never really gone away. Much of it was published in her lifetime and key elements of her output including songs and chamber music have kept a toe-hold in the repertoire and we are now exploring her output further (her Symphony No. 2 'Gaelic' is part of the Philharmonia Orchestra's 2021/22 season). The music of Florence Price (1887-1937) not only disappeared from the repertoire after her death but key manuscripts disappeared altogether and it is only after a relatively recent discovery of a cache in an attic that we can start exploring her legacy properly.

The difference? Price was was a black woman at a time when being a woman in music was tricky and so being a black woman in music was well nigh impossible. Thankfully we are now making some sort of restitution and Price's music is getting the attention it deserves. Whilst that of Beach is being placed in a more sympathetic context.

A new recording on Chandos, American Quintets, places the 1907 Quintet, Op.67 by Amy Beach (in fact, for most of her life she always referred to herself as Mrs H.H.A. Beach ) alongside the premiere recording of the c1935 Quintet by Florence Price performed by the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective (Elenia Urioste & Melissa White, violin, Rosalind Ventris, viola, Laura van der Heijden, cello, Tom Poster, piano) and they are joined by Matthew Rose (bass) for Samuel Barber's 1931 work Dover Beach.

They begin with Beach's Quintet. Beach began as a pianist, she was something of a prodigy and it was piano that she studied but marrying at only 18, her husband did not want her to perform in public and so she concentrated on composition. Though Beach is grouped with the New England school, she was largely self-taught as a composer. She premiered the Quintet in 1907 in Boston, performing it with the Hoffmann Quartet and it would become one of her most performed works. 

The work is very much inspired by that of Brahms (which Beach had performed in Boston in 1900). It is in three movements, each restlessly moving between tempo indications and from the first notes the work plunges straight in and one contemporary critic referred to the work as 'restlessly expressive'. Darkly dramatic and rather intense, the first movement is a remarkable piece of post-Brahmsian writing. Beach tends to stick within Brahms' harmonic remit, the work is Romantic and chromatic but she hardly strays into the sort of territory being explored by Schoenberg in his early Romantic works. It is the chromaticism which we notice in the quietly intense slow movement. Beach's music might be of a Romantic impulse but she shies away from Big Tunes towards something more restless (I know, that word again). With the final movement we get hints of a scherzo, but something darkly dramatic weaves its way in too, leading to a full-blooded climax.

Born into a mixed-race family in Arkansas, Florence Price was talented early and went to study at the New England Conservatory in Boston (where she passed as Mexican to try and avoid racial harassment). She returned to the South and married in 1912 but moved to Chicago in 1927. Though she had significant success, she relied quite heavily on a network of other Black performers in Chicago and by her death her music had begun to fade from consciousness. She wrote two piano quintets, the better known in E minor was written in 1937 but the one in A minor on the present disc was one of the works which came back to light as a result of the discovery of the cache of Price's manuscripts. It may date from the 1930s as well.

In four movements, the first and longest is the most classical in style though from the off, Price's musical material brings in other hints. It seems clear that one of her principal classical inspirations must have been Dvorak, and the way that composer worked Czech melodies into classical structures (as well as writing an 'American' quartet) seems to pop out in the engaging and complex first movement. This is the longest in the work and once past, Price seems to allow herself space to explore other influences. So that the second movement is inspired by the spirituals and hymns which were very much part of the Black musical culture of the time, yet it keeps the Dvorak influence, unsurprisingly. The delightful third movement is based on a dance from the slave plantations of the Deep South, the juba stomping dance. This takes us into a musical world which isn't far from the rags of Scott Joplin and makes a striking replacement for the traditional scherzo. The finale is fast and furious, returning us to the composer's dramatic world.

In between these two comes Samuel Barber's Dover Beach for baritone and string quartet. Whilst the medium of voice and string quartet was hardly a common one (Schoenberg used it in his Second String Quartet of 1908), it was something that had been taken up by Italian composers in the 20th century including Pizzetti, Respighi and Barber's teacher, Rosario Scalero. A setting of a poem by Matthew Arnold's, Dover Beach introduces a more recent vein of American tonal music into the mix on the disc. Barber was born in 1910 so any influence of Dvorak and Brahms is long distant. He gives us a contemplative vocal line, expressively flexible as it follows Arnold's complex poetry; RVW once complimented the composer, saying that he had tried setting the poem but failed. Around this flow the strings. Rose and the ensemble give us a darkly poetic performance, concentrated rather than overly demonstrative. It forms a superbly thoughtful contrast between the more explicitly Romantic quintets by Barber's older contemporaries.

This is the debut recording from the Kaleidescope Chamber Collective and their performances speak easily familiarity with the music. In a note, Tom Poster and Elena Urioste talk about how the group fell in love with Beach's work a couple of year's ago and the inclusion of the Price was the result of deliberately looking for a suitable companion work.

This is a superb debut, with a finely attuned group of talented players. In Tom Poster they have a pianist who is well able to deal with the complexities of Beach's piano writing yet in neither piano quintet do you feel there is a danger of moving towards mini piano concerto, this collegial playing at its best. All three works have a feeling of long experience, and this results in a richly rewarding programme.

Beach's Quintet has had a previous existence on disc with a number of recordings, but it is a work which still has not become common in the concert hall.  Price's Quintet, by contrast, is receiving its first performance and neither of her piano quintets has made it as a regular in the concert hall. I do hope that this terrific recording will encourage other groups to be a bit more adventurous.

Amy Beach (1867-1944) - Quintet, Op. 67 (1907) [28:33]
Samuel Barber (1910 - 1981) - Dover Beach, Op. 3 (1931) [7:25]
Florence Price (1887-1953) - Quintet in A minor (?c1935) [27:41]
Matthew Rose (bass)
Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective (
Elenia Urioste & Melissa White, violin, Rosalind Ventris, viola, Laura van der Heijden, cello, Tom Poster, piano)
Recorded 17-19 September 2020 at Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk
CHANDOS CHAN20224 1CD [63:58]

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