In the music conservatories of the late middle of the twentieth century, the reputation of Amy Beach took it hard; after all, she signed her compositions with the pretentious name of "Mrs. H.H.A. Beach," and was associated with a type of American composition that slavishly adhered to German Romantic models. In addition to that, she was, God forbid, a woman, and it was once held that "everybody knows a woman simply just cannot write classical music." Yet, even with the attitude of the male-dominated conservatories of the time, certain of Beach's songs never totally fell into disuse -- they were attractive and serious-minded and still found a place on many recital programs.
What a difference a generation makes -- conservatories no longer embattle the reputation of female composers, and the backlash against everything Romantic has simply ceased to exist. Now we are seeing whole recorded programs of Beach's songs that reveal a lot about the strength of her character, her many-faceted musical personality, and, with that, an evaluation of American Romanticism unfiltered by the jaundiced, minority view of the great, but unquestionably eccentric Charles Ives. Into the breach comes Bridge Records' Songs of Amy Beach, the second such collection to appear in a mere two years' time. The other one appeared on Naxos and featured mezzo-soprano Katherine Kelton. This one features a baritone (i.e., a man) Patrick Mason and piano accompanist Joanne Polk. The program spans 45 years of Amy Beach's activity, and the eclecticism of approach among these 22 songs should put to rest the notion that she slavishly adhered to any kind of model.
Although many of the texts Beach set are written by women, and her tastes in poetry reveal a feminine sensibility, some of the songs sit rather low for even a mezzo, particularly Dark Garden, one of her most outstanding creations. Nonetheless, in Songs of Amy Beach, Mason does make the case for male voice in the songs of Beach. Mason approaches all of Beach's work with sensitivity and restraint, not an easy challenge, as he has such a loud and powerful instrument. At times the voice appears a little rough at the edges, and during Go Not Too Far Mason seems to get somewhat tired; it IS a difficult song. Overall this is a well-planned and well-sung recital, and Joanne Polk's accompaniment is outstanding throughout. Songs of Amy Beach doesn't duplicate a great many songs on the Naxos disc, and if one has a passion for, or curiosity about, Beach's vocal music, this Bridge Records release is a safe bet.