New England Romanticism

Mrs. H.H.A. Beach: Sonata for Violin and Piano / Arthur Foote: Sonata for Violin and Piano

Joseph Silverstein, violin / Gilbert Kalish, piano

New World Records NW268

Like Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn before her, Amy Beach (or Mrs. H.H.A. Beach if you want to be patriarchal about it) was a phenomenal composer and pianist severely limited by the arbitrary obstacle of her gender. The milieu she was raised in,  mid to late 19th century New Hampshire, wasn’t much more liberating than her female forebears’ had been. In particular, the classical music world had always been totally male-dominated. A woman composer or soloist had to prove herself by being a superhumanly skillful musician. Which is exactly what Amy Beach happened to be.

Beach, nee Cheney, born in 1867, was what we’d call a child prodigy. At the age of two she could play counter-melody like it was nobody’s business. Still in her teens, she went on to a celebrated career as a soloist, well-known for her performances of Moscheles, Mendelssohn and Chopin. Then she got married. Her new husband demanded that she rein in her busy performance schedule. So, besides her family who wished her to just settle down, she had to contend with Mr. Beach. He gave his consent for her to compose, but with the shitty stipulation that any music bear her married name. In 1896, she composed and had premiered her “Gaelic” Symphony, which did for Irish-American tunes what Dvorak had done for spirituals and New World harmonies. It was the first ever symphony by a woman.

Indeed, she helped promulgate a national American music, becoming part of the so-called Second New England School of composers, which included Edward MacDowell, Arthur Foote and others who comprised the “Boston Six”. Her Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor, op. 45, debuted in 1900, with Beach herself soloing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor (1897) of Amy Beach has started to achieve something of it’s overdue prominence. Beach and Franz Kneisel (then conductor of the BSO) premiered the piece. A haunting solo from the piano introduces the theme, which expands into a Romantic outpouring from both instruments. The 2nd movement is a plucky tune before turning more sensuous, while the Largo con dolore is full-bore Romanticism with a tangibly yearning thrum. An Allegro con fuoco wraps up the sonata with an exuberant momentum that nonetheless doesn’t lose sight of it’s tender core.

Equal parts Brahms and Rachmaninov (and some weirdly modernist moments you might encounter in the neoclassical homages of Prokofiev or Stravinsky), the sonata has a strong American folk-song vibe. This recording from New World Records comes with the added bonus of the Violin Sonata by Beach’s colleague Arthur Foote, and some fantastical sleeve art you probably wouldn’t associate with East Coast chamber music.

The Prodigy


Clara Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, opus 7 / Scherzos / 4 Fugitive Pieces / Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann

Michael Ponti, piano / Berlin Symphony Orchestra / Voelker Schmidt-Gertenbach


Clara Wieck’s 1835 Piano Concerto is a sparkling work somewhat in the mold of her teacher, Felix Mendelssohn, who conducted the premiere in 1838.

One of her father’s own music students was Robert Schumann, and they courted and wed fast, against her father’s wishes. Like her friend and fellow-composer Fanny Mendelssohn (Felix’s sister), Clara shattered at least one glass ceiling by performing in public at a time when musical women could hope to become singers at best. She was a first-class soloist, whom many critics believed would one day rival Franz Liszt, the demigod of the instrument. She continued to travel as a concert pianist even after giving birth to 8 (!) children, and caring for Robert during his spells of suicidal depression–a domestic workload that’s simply ridiculous.

Along with a Piano Trio and a set of Polonaises, the Piano Concerto in A minor is considered among her finest works. Ponti gives a precocious interpretation; in the first movement, ascending octaves, a la Chopin, are interrupted by the orchestra before the piano wrests away the main theme. Back-and-forth playful rhythms between cello and piano open the exquisite Romance, which then leads almost without pause from timpani to trumpets in the virtuosic final movement.

Steeped from childhood in the repertoire, it’s a prototypically classical concerto: Lightly dramatic, it calls for virtuosity and gracefulness in equal measure.

Oh, the composer was 13 years old when she began composing it.