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.

Fantasy: Ursula Oppens (et al) Play the World Premieres of Five Major Works by Laura Kaminsky


Cedille CDR 90000 202

Laura Kaminsky (1956- ) is a native New Yorker and has plied her trade there for some time. So how does she wind up on a label so intimately dedicated to Chicago music and musicians? Well, the answer is simple, Ursula Oppens. Oppens (a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences) is also a New Yorker but her 14 year tenure as Distinguished Professor of Music at Northwestern University (1994-2008) certainly qualifies her as a valued Chicago artist. Realistically she is a highly accomplished and world renowned musician with an admirable history of supporting new music through her many definitive performances and recordings. With the exception of Fantasy, all the music here was commissioned by and/or written for Ursula Oppens, (Reckoning written for Oppens and Lowenthal destined for this recording).

This very welcome disc features three major works: Piano Quintet (2018), Fantasy (2010), and Piano Concerto (2011). as well as Reckoning: Five Miniatures for America (2019), a set of miniatures for piano four hands. As noted on the back cover, all are world premiere recordings. And these are very fine, actually definitive recordings. The Quintet, Fantasy, and Reckoning were all recorded at Brooklyn College, the concerto at Arizona State University. All were produced by the wonderful Judith Sherman and mastering was done by the equally wonderful Bill Maylone.

While Kaminsky works in a largely tonal post-modern idiom, this is not populist music, rather it is music by an accomplished composer who works well within such a medium. Her work is compelling and intriguing as well as entertaining.

Let’s start with the Piano Quintet. This medium is strongly associated with the romantic era. Piano Quintets by the likes of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms largely define the genre and there are many lesser known examples which were produced well into the early 20th century. The genre seems to be enjoying a re-emergence and even modernists like Elliott Carter and Iannis Xenakis have penned masterworks in this form.

Kaminsky’s Piano Quintet is very much in the classical/romantic style. It is cast in three movements some of which reflect the variety of influences in her compositional palette. Her compositional skills allow her to evoke pretty much whatever emotion she chooses. Her style shows influences and echoes from classical forms, jazz, pop, minimalism all integrated into a largely tonal/post romantic style which easily engages listeners and manages to be highly expressive. The three movements are generally modeled on classical forms but Kaminsky manages to personalize her wide stylistic gestures and create a work that is celebratory rather than derivative. That said this piece is quite a ride for the listener as well as a significant addition to the repertory.

The Fantasy is a large and challenging work which ventures through a variety of styles and moods. This is a big work whose pianism reminds this writer of Rzewski and his rather Lisztian virtuosity. It might as easily be called, “rhapsody” for its rapid transitions of mood and style. Oppens manages to give form to this complex piece that does not appear to be easily interpreted by any but the best musicians.

The five miniatures that comprise Reckoning are brief but powerful statements written for Oppens and her sometime collaborator, Jerome Lowenthal, another highly skilled artist whose collaboration on a previous Cedille release, the Rzewski “People United” variations. These two are a good match of technical skills as well as interpretive ability.

The concerto is the big work here. Cedille saves the best for last notwithstanding the preceding masterful compositions. Here in a large orchestral piece with piano, Kaminsky demonstrates even more clearly her facility with instrumental colors which she uses to great effect in this grand concerto.

It is a piano concerto very much in the tradition of the classical soloist/orchestra which features the pianistic skills of the soloist. The orchestral “accompaniment”, if one can even call it by that name, derives more from the grand romantic tradition utilizing a large orchestra to which is given the role of coordinating with the pianist. But here the orchestra is given technical challenges nearly equal to the solo piano part. This is as grand as a Brahms concerto with the orchestra given a great deal to do and for the listener to enjoy. In addition to the nearly athletic, fingerbusting piano part, there are delightful passages in the orchestral playing that sort of sneak up on and charm the listener.

Kaminsky’s Piano Concerto was reportedly inspired by visual images of sunlit rivers in New York City and St. Petersburg, Russia. Oppens gave the world premiere with the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic led by its artistic director Jeffery Meyer. On this world-premiere recording, Meyer, who is also director of orchestras at Arizona State University, conducts the ASU Symphony Orchestra and, like Oppens, meets a very challenging task with both grace and insight.

Kaminsky is a solid, disciplined composer who produces music of substance which intelligently engages audiences. This is a fine introduction to her work or a fine addition to an already established collection of her music. Her music was unknown to this writer’s ears before hearing this album and now leaves me wanting to explore more of the work of this fine American composer.