Kirsten Johnson

Amy Beach: Piano Music, Vol. 1 - The Early Years

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Even now, in the early twenty first century, Amy Beach's music, like that of Cecile Cheminade, is still often relegated to the novelty shelf of piano repertoire. Hoping to further spread the praises of Beach, Kirsten Johnson begins a series of recordings devoted to the music of Beach, taking a more chronological approach than that of Joanne Polk, whose three discs of Beach's piano music are the only other set available at the time of this disc's release.

Where this title says "The Early Works," it means the early works, pieces written by Beach when she was 5, 10, and 11 years old. Be thankful that the majority of the disc is made up of pieces written when she was slightly more mature -- in her twenties -- and that Johnson chose to open the disc with one of these later works. It's not that Beach's very first compositions are not remarkable in many ways given the composer's age, and Johnson plays them with as much maturity as possible, but they are simplistic. They are minor works within Beach's output, but beyond including them for the sake of documentation, there is a relation between them and the set entitled Children's Carnival. That work was written for children and retains much of the same limited range and density of her earliest pieces. However, there is more sophistication of character in the suite, which is based on Commedia dell'Arte roles and themes. There is also direct connection between the 1877 Menuetto and the "Menuet italien" in the Trois morceaux caractéristiques, which uses the same melody, but has a slightly more complex accompaniment and a much more grown-up trio section. The other works Johnson presents are character pieces, very much representative of the better piano music of the time, but some of which reflect Beach's first ambition to be a performing pianist. The Valse Caprice can get quite showy, and the Ballade very dramatic, making them suitable recital material. Even the Trois morceaux, as Johnson presents them, have the ability to charm a listener by their nature and their moments of semi-virtuosity. Johnson has done her research on all of the music, and her performance reflects a lot of thought about how each piece would have been used by Beach, the formal construction, and the character implied by Beach's titles. Johnson finds an ideal middle ground between those more academic aspects and an indulgence of interpretation that makes Beach's early music very personable, taking it past the point of a sidelight within the genre of late-nineteenth/early twentieth century solo piano music.

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