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Recordings

Songs of Amy Beach
20 Nov 2006

Songs of Amy Beach

I can remember a time when Amy Beach was primarily known as a favorite among performers (largely female) whose mission was to present the work of neglected women composers.

Songs of Amy Beach

Patrick Mason, baritone, Joanne Polk, piano

Bridge 9182 [CD]

$17.98  Click to buy

With the revival of interest in American Romantic music, Beach has begun to appear on more recital and concert programs. Now, this recital disc devoted entirely to Amy Beach’s songs, performed by baritone Patrick Mason and pianist Joanne Polk, should bring Beach squarely into the mainstream of serious American art song composers. It is refreshing to hear her songs in a man’s voice, and a special treat to hear the accompaniments, written by a composer who began life as a child piano prodigy and who clearly has a sensitivity for the instrument, performed by an artist who has already made a name for herself recording Beach’s complete piano works for the Arabesque label.

The program is presented chronologically, with an ear for contrast in mood, so that the 56-minute program gives a satisfying sense of the largely self-taught composer’s range and development. While her songs may not have broken much new ground musically, she was very good at what she did, and these songs are quite interesting and satisfying to listen to. Through Patrick Mason’s extensive notes, for which he acknowledges the help of Adrienne Fried Block, Beach’s biographer, we get a real sense of the composer as a person, and of her relationship with her husband, whose poetry she sometimes set and to whom each year, on his birthday, she dedicated a song, which he would sing as she accompanied him.

Block’s biography of Beach is entitled Passionate Victorian, which describes the songs on this disk quite well. The texts are for the most part contemporary with Beach herself, or from a generation earlier, so the poetic diction of some of the earlier songs contains some Victorianisms that may sound dated to us today. But the poems’ resonance with Beach’s passionate nature shows up clearly in the musical treatment she gives them. Mason points out in his notes on “The Summer Wind” (1891), “the sensuality of Amy Beach’s music…the eroticizing of Nature in poetry encourages unashamed expression of sexual feelings not otherwise appropriate at the time (for a woman at any rate). Amy seems liberated by these texts to reveal her true self.”

Mason’s straightforward, authentic delivery of these texts helps keep a song like “Baby” from slipping into simple sentimentality, instead profoundly expressing a parent’s wonder at the miracle of a newborn child. The singer’s diction is for the most part excellent, and I found it easy to follow most of this all-English-language program without having to consult the texts. My one regret is that, perhaps in an effort to achieve this clarity, Mason covers his higher notes more than I would like, making a less resonant sound at the tops of the soaring phrases than the music deserves. In the middle and lower range, however, his voice is quite beautiful (I particularly enjoyed the long held word “past” in his low range in the opening song, “Twilight”).

Listeners interested in exploring Amy Beach’s songs have a choice between this disc and another all-Beach collection on the budget Naxos label by mezzo-soprano Katherine Kelton and pianist Catherine Bringerud. Naxos’s disc is about half the price of this one and contains about twenty more minutes of music (36 songs, compared with 22 on this Bridge release). While there is some overlap between the two programs, many of the songs on each disc are not duplicated on the other, so the two may be considered supplemental rather than direct rivals. If I had to choose between the two, I would probably choose the Naxos disc if my interest were largely in getting intelligent, professional performances of the most songs, including songs in French and German, for a very reasonable price. On the other hand, while Katherine Kelton is an expert on Beach’s songs, the Naxos budget constraints don’t allow for the booklet to contain notes that are anywhere near as extensive as Mason’s. Thus, the Bridge disc enables us to feel that we’ve really gotten to know the woman whose photograph at age sixteen graces its cover. Furthermore, while Catherine Bringerud is comfortable in the Beach accompaniments, Joanne Polk’s extensive experience with her solo music gives the highly important piano parts of these songs a level of detail and excitement that helps to make the performances on Bridge more memorable and the overall program more interesting to listen to as a complete program.

Barbara Miller

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