Ruthanne Schempf

An American Mirage

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The American art music of the early twentieth century has a distinctive flavor. Pianist Ruthanne Schempf, based in upstate New York and Michigan, characterizes it as "German Romanticism practiced by New England composers," which is true enough. Yet there's a certain ambition they share that comes out when they're placed together as they are here. Schempf is technically solid: if the opening Piano Sonata of Charles Tomlinson Griffes needs more oomph, she has a very nice singing tone in the more lyrical pieces that follow. But her real accomplishment lies in bringing these pieces together; while none is exactly unknown, they're more often paired with European works. The segue from Griffes, whose sonata relies on a motif that's almost an abstract, artificial scale, to the highly sentimental Ethelbert Nevin may seem odd, but it underscores the fact that neither of these composers followed Continental models all that closely. Schempf follows with a set of Five Poems, songs without words, by Arthur Foote, inspired by poetry of Omar Khayyam; two economical sketches from late in the life of Amy Beach, and the sole real repertory work on the program, MacDowell's Woodland Sketches. None partakes of the experiments with Native American or African American music by which American composers of the day attempted to define an American national style, but all are reaching for something new. The conclusion with the Piano Variations of Copland, who engaged himself with the European forward edge in a way that none of the other composers did, makes clear why this music was temporarily forgotten, and why New York rather than Boston would be the American musical capital henceforth. Yet the earlier music is ripe for revival and can stand on its own merits when put in the right context, which is exactly what Schempf does here. A strong recital recommended to those interested in American concert music.

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