Florence Price: Lost Chamber Music


Azica

I’m a couple of weeks late for Black History Month but right in the middle of International Women’s Month. Both of these groups are woefully under represented in the arts, hence the need to put more energy and funding into the promotion such as we see in this fine release from Azica records..

This is the second volume by the enterprising Catalyst Quartet‘s project to find and record chamber music by black composers. The first volume focused on the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) and the present album focuses on Florence B. Price (1887-1953). Price was the first black woman to have a symphony performed by a major symphony orchestra when the Chicago Symphony under then music director, Frederick Stock performed her 1932 Symphony in E minor in June, 1933.

In fact Price’s music had nearly been lost when, in 2009, a cache of her scores was discovered in her abandoned summer house near St. Anne, Illinois (by the structure’s new owners). Price had written nearly 300 works which, until recently, had been all but forgotten. Since then three of her four symphonies (the second one is lost) have been recorded along with many of her smaller works. This recording marks the most comprehensive presentation of her extant chamber music: Two string quartets (one apparently unfinished), two piano quintets, and two sets of contrapuntal variations on folk tunes for string quartet.

This digital only release is the equivalent of two CDs. And, while the digital only status is a reflection of the lack of funding for music of blacks and women, it is very important that recognition be given to this very fine effort of musical archeology rescuing important American art from oblivion. The Catalyst Quartet consists of Karla Donehew Perez, violin; Abi Fayette, violin; Paul Laraia, viola; and Karlos Rodriguez, cello. They are joined by pianist Michelle Cann in the piano quintets.

The recording starts out mightily with the Brahmsian Piano Quintet in A minor of 1935. This is a major work which can hold its own with similar works by Brahms, Schumann, Faure, Franck, Dvorak, etc.

The work is cast in four movements. The opening movement, marked “Allegro non troppo”, immediately affirms Price’s mastery of compositional technique with a lengthy elaborate development and some virtuosic writing for both quartet and piano. The “Andante con moto” which comprises the second movement is also evidence of Price’s skills and talent. It is a lyrical essay which provides a respite from the intensity of the opening movement and demonstrates the composer’s melodic prowess.

There are two shorter movements that follow. Juba is the name of a dance form which was imported along with the slave trade from the African continent. It is known variously as “juba”, “djouba”, “pattin juba”, and “hambone”. Price was fond of using this form in her work and the inclusion of folk and vernacular music in classical compositions was very much in fashion during this era as evidenced by the work of Dvorak, Bartok, Kodaly, Copland, Dawson, and Still. Price used the form in her symphonies, the present piano quintet, and the A minor String Quartet. The work concludes with a brief scherzo movement, another device which Price used to conclude several of her works.

Next we hear another example of Price’s use of folk music in the first of two sets of arrangements for string quartet. Actually the term, “arrangements” carries a too simple connotation for these works. They are in fact contrapuntal elaborations more in the tradition of Bach in his chorale preludes.

This first set, titled, “Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet” which dates from about 1949. It consists of four separate movements: “Go down Moses”, “Somebody’s knockin’ at yo do'”, “Little David play on yo harp”, and “Joshua fit de battle ob Jericho”. This is the world premiere recording of another substantial Price work.

The next work is another world premiere recording, her String Quartet in A minor which received its first public performance in 1936. It is cast in four movements, Moderato, Andante cantabile, Juba, and Finale. With the exception of the Juba movement this is pretty much a standard classical formula. The quartet is another of Price’s major works and, like the Piano Quintet, can stand with its contemporaries in the string quartet repertory. Of course the fact that it had to wait over 80 years to receive a commercial recording serves as part of the preponderance of evidence that the neglect of this music was willful.

The “Five Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet of 1951 is similar in style and structure to the earlier folksong elaborations this time with five songs: “Calvary”, “O my darlin’ Clementine”, “Drink to me only with thine eyes”, “Shortnin’ bread”, and “Swing low sweet chariot”.

The last two works featured in this fine set are also world premiere recordings but these are works that were unknown until that serendipitous find in 2009. These works appear to be incomplete, works that the composer likely set aside and never revisited. They are entirely competent and entertaining works but not on the level of the preceding pieces on this recording. In fact the dates of composition have not been reliably determined and the work of the musicologists must begin in earnest.

The two movements (Allegro and Andante moderato) of the String Quartet in G major are quite satisfying but the expectation of two more (perhaps a Juba and Scherzo?) will forever identify this as an unfinished work.

There are three extant movements in the Quintet for Piano and Strings (Allegro, Andante, Allegretto) suggest the possibility that this work may have been considered complete by the composer. But the level of quality in this work is not up to that of the A minor Quintet. Again it is time to alert the musicologists that there is work to be done and, of course, the possibility of finding more lost scores but having these so lovingly documented does a great deal to secure the composer’s legacy as one of America’s great composers.

Rachel Barton Pine Restoring Neglected Masterpieces to the Repertoire: Dvorak and Khachaturian


bartonpinedvorak

Avie AV-2411

Rachel Barton-Pine is one of the finest and most interesting performers working today.  Her unique look at the performing repertoire for her instrument continues to be one of the most salient features of her artistry.  Certainly her interpretive abilities are foremost but her choices of neglected repertoire make any release of her recordings a reason to pay close attention.

In the past she has recorded many a neglected piece based on her interest in the music.  She has featured black composers from the baroque to the present and has managed to resurrect unjustly neglected concerti from composers of pretty much every racial and national description.  Here she features two lovely seldom heard concertos.  The Dvorak concerto from 1789 and the Khachaturian concerto from 1941.  Both are major works and a challenge to the soloist and both fit pretty much into the late romantic genre (arguably that would be “post romantic” for the Khachaturian).

The present recording is released on the Avie label which is a progressive independent label which itself boasts an impressive selection of musical works in very fine performances.  This disc is a fine example of the work they do and is a great selection for the listener’s library.  These two concertos were popular in their day but have not seen inclusion in live performances or recordings as much as other romantic concertos.  One could speculate endlessly on why this is so or one could simply celebrate the fact that we are getting to hear them in these fine and definitive recordings.

The Dvorak from 1879 is as tuneful and entertaining as any of its contemporaries (Bruch, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, etc) but for whatever reason has not received as much attention.  Regardless of why this is so I would recommend just listening and drawing your own conclusions.  This three movement work is as challenging technically and as entertaining a concerto as any currently in regular performance.  This work is one of the finest examples of the high romanticism of the late 19th century and one hope this recording will help cement the piece into a more frequent visitor to both concert halls and recordings.

The Khachaturian (from 1940) began its life during the throes of the WWII under the oppressive political scrutiny of Josef Stalin and his regime.  Khachaturian, who is now recognized quite properly as an Armenian composer, was then subsumed into the mix of the vast gaggle of countries and cultures under the rubric of the USSR.  And while this is not particularly or obviously ethnic as other music from this region it is important to know that the composer’s identity was “Russian” by default and not by choice.  Regardless of those considerations one must be grateful for the fact that the oppressive regime was able to recognize a quality work (also one in three movements) and give it the “Stalin prize”.  Doubtless there are influences gleaned from the composer’s efforts to not offend the conservative tastes of the ruling elite but the bottom line here is that we have a true masterpiece of the concerto genre and one which deserves serious attention and continued performances.

The useful liner notes are by the soloist, a fact which spotlights her musicological interests and her ability to communicate with an audience verbally as well as musically.  In fact a quick perusal of Rachel’s web site will lead the interested to some of her more pedagogical efforts featuring scores of some of these lesser known masterpieces.

And, oh yes, there are large orchestral duties here too.  The wonderful Royal Scottish National Orchestra is led by the rising star conductor/composer Teddy Abrams who recently took over leadership of another supporter of new and/or neglected musics, the venerable Louisville Orchestra.  Founded in 1937 they have carried the torch for new music and celebrated the inclusion of all genders and ethnicities in their musical vision, an embodiment of the very intent of the phrase, “E Pluribus Unum” especially in this musical context.

All in all a great disc which is unlikely to duplicate anything in your collection but one to which you will doubtless return for sheer entertainment and joy.