Amy Beach
Sonata in A-minor for Violin and Piano, Op.34
Romance, Op.23; Invocation, Op.55
Clara Schumann
Three Romances, Op.22
Ethel Smyth
Sonata in A-minor for Violin and Piano, Op.7
Tasmin Little (violin) & John Lenehan (piano)

Recorded 12-14 June 2018 in Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, England
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 20030
Duration: 71 minutes
Reviewed: March 2019

Although the sole reason for this programme appears to be that all the composers were women, the Sonatas by Mrs H. H. A. Beach (strangely called here “Amy Marcy Cheney Beach”, of which more anon) and the young Ethel Smyth do go well together. They are both richly romantic works but for some reason neither has come my way before, although I have admired both of these redoubtable women for many years and have acquired records of other works by them. The recording team is virtually the same as the group who made Jennifer Pike’s Polish disc at the same venue two months later, but there is no sign of the imbalance between the instruments which marred that enterprise. Tasmin Little is well recorded and so is John Lenehan, who as always proves a strong yet tactful partner. He is nicely portrayed on the back cover of the booklet but has his name in smaller type on the front cover. I do wish record companies would not do this – the players in duo-Sonatas are equals.

Amy Marcy Cheney (1867-1944) first showed talent as a pianist, having begun lessons with her mother at six. Born in New Hampshire, she moved with her parents to the Boston area in 1875 and, rather than send her to a European conservatory, her parents arranged for home tuition – piano with Ernst Perabo and then Carl Baermann, harmony and counterpoint with Junius W. Hill. As a composer she was largely an auto-didact and amassed a formidable body of knowledge. Her public career as a pianist was largely curtailed when she married Dr Henry Harris Aubrey Beach in 1885: she agreed to give just two charity concerts a year and to refrain from teaching the piano. Her husband also baulked at her having composition lessons, hence her intense concentration on self-education. On the other hand Dr Beach seems to have happily indulged her composing, and she had success in a wide range of music. What particularly concerns us here is that she had a long and happy artistic relationship with America’s senior chamber ensemble, based in Boston as members of the Symphony and led by the Romanian Franz Kneisel. The Kneisel Quartet used to return to Europe every summer and on at least one occasion holidayed in the same place as Brahms. The group must have contributed to her artistic burgeoning – and incidentally her appearances with its members seem to have fallen outside the two charity concerts per annum stricture.

Mrs H. H. A. Beach was respected by her fellow Boston composers and had an honoured place in society. She seems to have loved her husband and was eventually buried next to him: after his death – he was twenty-four years older and died in 1910, not long before she also lost her mother – she was in deep grief and could not work, so tried moving to Europe and had successes in Germany before returning just after the start of the Great War. It was only during this brief period in Germany that she styled herself Amy Beach. Back in Boston, she resumed her established name, although she understandably had Amy Beach on her stationery. I mention all of this because since about the mid-1970s, American feminists have successfully campaigned to have this appellation accepted as the norm. This piece of history-rewriting overlooks the fact that without Dr Beach we would not have had most of her compositions – up to her marriage she had considered herself “a pianist first and foremost”. Chandos’s booklet note includes one or two errors and does not even mention her maiden name.

The Violin Sonata in A-minor is a mature composition. Mrs Beach wrote it in 1896, soon after her well-received Gaelic Symphony, and gave the first performance herself with Kneisel at a Kneisel Quartet subscription concert in 1897. The work had a lot of success and was even taken up by Ysaÿe and Pugno. The opening Allegro moderato in sonata form and the third movement, Largo con dolore, have a wistful character, almost as if the composer were gazing out of her window at the garden and daydreaming. It is the same nostalgic character that we meet in a lot of Elgar. In between is a delightful Scherzo with a slow Trio. The sonata-form Finale also partakes of the wistfulness but rises to ardent heights, and Mrs Beach apparently suggested some changes to that published, “the spirit of which is followed in this performance”. No, I do not know what that means, either! The Sonata is played magnificently by Little and Lenehan: there have been a number of previous recordings but I cannot imagine them being better.

Clara Schumann’s Three Romances were perhaps chosen because she befriended Ethel Smyth. Schumann (1819-6) was one of the great nineteenth-century pianists, a superb teacher and a penetrating critic. Her opinions were welcomed by her husband Robert, Brahms and others of their circle. I presume her ability to compose fed her analytical abilities but her works, even the one or two on a larger scale, do not suggest any great creative imagination. The second of her Romances could be mistaken for something by Robert, and the other two, while perfectly pleasant, do not quicken the pulse of this particular listener. They are played here affectionately and as well as you might expect.

The A-minor Sonata by Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) is another find. Written during her time in Germany, it was premièred in Leipzig in 1887 by Adolf Brodsky and Fanny Davies. Like Beach’s work it is in four movements with the Scherzo second; and it is possible, I suppose, that Beach knew it. Anyway, the two works are otherwise very different, even if they both exude the kind of Late-Romanticism that was in the air at the time. To begin with, Smyth’s Sonata is a more resolute affair, with a trenchantly bold air to the opening Allegro moderato and with interesting rhythmic devices. The Scherzo is quite brief but subtle. The E-minor Romanze refers to the passage in Dante’s Divine Comedy about Francesca da Rimini looking back to happier times, and here, in the violin’s beautiful cantilena, we find some of the wistfulness distilled by Beach. The players really tear into the Finale and in general do not put a foot wrong anywhere.

Little and Lenehan end with two more pieces by Beach. The fairly substantial six-minute Romance, specially written for the Women’s Musical Congress at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and dedicated to Maud Powell, was premièred there on 5 July by the composer and Powell. Beach had already composed a Festival Jubilate for the opening of the Woman’s Pavilion in 1892. The Romance is very well played here. Although Powell and Beach were friends, I cannot find that the great violinist ever played the Sonata, although she took the Romance into her repertoire. Little and Lenehan end with the four-minute Invocation of 1904, marked Adagio con elevazione and performed in that spirit.

 

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