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Rachel Barton Pine's
tribute to Maud Powell -
welcomed by

'... irresistible artistry ...'

American Virtuoso. Tribute to Maud Powell. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Matthew Hagle, piano. © 2007 Cedille Records

All those familiar with the artistry of Rachel Barton Pine will be in no doubt: she has credentials that equip her superbly to tackle this diverse miscellany of Americana -- and diversity is clearly the operative word as here Dvorák, Chopin, Grainger, Amy Beach and H P Danks rub musical shoulders.

Were it not for the fact that this release is a tribute to acclaimed Illinois-born violinist, Maud Powell (1867-1920), thirty-five-year-old Barton Pine -- also from Illinois -- may be on shaky ground. Perhaps most remarkable: eight of the items, those by Beach, Bauer, Venth, Bellstedt Jr, Huss, Gilbert, Burleigh and Liebling, were dedicated to Powell while a further eight, from Dvorák, Sibelius, Chopin, Palmgren, Coleridge-Taylor, Danks, Massenet and Johnson, were arranged by her.

One is bound to conclude that American Virtuosa fills a conspicuous void in the catalogue and deserves great success. And whoops, a key ingredient I'm almost forgetting is Barton Pine's 'ex-soldat' Guaneri del Gesu (1742); heard here across a diverse range of music. It has been said that to be displayed to fullest advantage a fine del Gesu calls for a performer with a strong left hand and incisive bowing -- make no mistake, Ms B P has both.

Powell represented an era when short, light items were very much in vogue and in this repertoire she (demonstrably) excelled.

Yet that was not all -- between 1889 and 1912 she introduced fifteen violin concertos to the American public -- the Tchaikovsky, Dvorák, Saint-Saëns, Bruch (Concertstuck -- world première), Lalo (Concerto in F major; Concerto 'Russe' in G minor), Sibelius (November 1906), Coleridge-Taylor (dedicated to Powell), Arensky, Aulin, Huss (dedicated to Powell), Shelley (dedicated to Powell), Conus, Bruch and Rimsky-Korsakov. She also revived neglected works of the eighteenth century, including Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, and even edited a Locatelli violin sonata for publication.

Listen -- Beach: Romance
(track 1, 0:49-2:02) © 2007 Cedille Records

Beach's Op 23 Romance rings up the curtain displaying the composer's strong, typically un-American dramatic, lyrical style; a bold opening to Rachel Pine's selection and one of the two longest items at around seven and a half minutes.

Hard on Amy Beach's heels is Molly on the Shore, exuding Percy Grainger's trademark jollity from start to finish; here violin and piano alternately present the composer's breathless Irish reel, dedicated to Grieg. Next, from Dvorák's Gypsy Songs cycle, Op 55 No 4, Cedille includes the composer's perennial favourite, Songs my Mother taught Me ('Kdyz mne stará matka'), offered with touching simplicity by both Hagle and Pine.

Sibelius' Musette can be readily identified as that of the Finnish master -- though he wrote little else quite as flimsy.

Barton Pine skips from Járvenpáá, Finland to Florida, USA for Marion Bauer's Up the Ocklawaha, inspired by the 110 mile long Ocklawaha River flowing north from Central Florida til it joins the St Johns River near Palatka. Bauer transports us twice from still waters via highly charged crescendos and a playful middle section -- rising to its own decibel peak -- somewhat Brahmsian though not as picturesque as the title appears to suggest.

Listen -- Bauer: Up the Ocklawaha
(track 5, 1:54-3:02) © 2007 Cedille Records

While studying, Marion Bauer swapped English lessons for harmony lessons with the great French composition tutor, mentor and pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979). Bauer taught at New York University, the Juilliard School, and several other institutions. In the 1920s, owing to her experiments in style, she was dubbed 'a radical of the musical left wing'. Bauer was a frequent lecturer at Chautauqua and an avid supporter of American music. She was a co-founder of the American Music Guild and served on the board of the League of American Composers.

The duo take to Chopin's solo piano favourite, the Minute Waltz, like a pair of ducks out of water. In short, this transcription seems to elude Powell's finely-honed skills.

In 1911, an early music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Cologne-born Karl Venth, wrote his Aria, the second of two dedications to Powell. Barton Pine invests this straightforward, deeply-felt miniature with expressive, radiant beauty.

Selim Palmgren (1878-1951), born in Pori at the mouth of the Kokemäenjoki River in south-west Finland, was, after Sibelius, the best-known and most respected Finnish composer on the international scene, though unlike his internationally famed countryman, Palmgren was more lyricist than symphonist.

He became best known for five Piano Concertos -- No 1, No 2 (The River), No 3 (Metamorphoses), No 4 (April) and No 5 (Concert Fantasia), and his opera Daniel Hjort (1862, with a libretto by Josef Wecksell, 1838-1907), a sombre drama set in Turku during the Peasants' Revolt/'Cudgel War' of 1596-7 and revived by Finnish Opera in 1938.

He appeared frequently as a Lied pianist: his first wife was Maikki Järnefelt-Palmgren, a renowned soprano, and when Maikki died in 1929 he married another soprano, Minna Talwik. In 1919 while touring in America he was appointed professor of composition at the Eastman School of Music, Rochester, NY, a position he held from 1921 to 1926. He was also Professor of Composition at the Sibelius Academy from 1939 (formerly the Helsinki Conservatory) till his death.

May Night ('Toukokuun yö', 1910) adapted from the piano original, for this 2'10" violin morsel, says little, but for its inconclusive hint of Debussy.

Spirituals are quintessential embodiments of the Afro-American 'slave' experience and the present recital includes two of the best-loved -- Coleridge-Taylor's Deep River and J Rosamond Johnson's Nobody Knows the Trouble -- without these (though a black Southern vocal, some may say, is mandatory), American Virtuosa would be sadly incomplete.

Just one item is as universally known as the spirituals -- it's from Dvorák -- the only composer represented twice. His Humoreske Op 101 No 7 is a staple for young violin students -- and here Barton Pine shows precisely how it should be done with the merest hint of portamento, so favoured in the early days of recording. Child's play!

In the New Zealand of the 1940s and 50s the Kiwi 'silent majority' regarded Rexford and J P Danks' insipid nineteenth century ballad Silver Threads among the Gold (and similarly Now is the Hour) with reverential, inexplicable, maudlin seriousness; on the contrary a few looked upon it as a 'kitsch' abomination. Frankly I can live without 'Threads', even when Barton Pine is its persuasive advocate.

A sole unaccompanied item, Caprice on Dixie (dedicated to Powell; adapted by Barton Pine) by cornet virtuoso Herman Bellstedt Jr (1858-1926), transports us straight to Paganini/Wieniawski territory. Barton Pine appears to revel in the much-loved minstrel ditty adopted by Civil War troops and subjected here to every trick in the virtuoso manual -- ricochet spiccato, unbridled harmonics, dizzying scalework, banjo-style pizzicato, rapid double stopping, feral arpeggios and left hand pizzicato detonating in all directions. Whew!

The second of American Virtuosa's items titled 'Romance' is from founder of the American Guild of Organists, New Jersey-born Henry Holden Huss, a pupil of Liechtenstein composer Josef Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901), and it reaches a far more troubled climax than Beach managed in the track 1 Romance.

Listen -- Huss: Romance
(track 13, 2:14-3:27) © 2007 Cedille Records

Huss wrote twenty organ sonatas and a body of chamber music, including the notable Quartet for Strings, Opus 31, dedicated to Mrs Frederick Coolidge and published in 1921. Today's Liechtenstein School of Music (opened in April 1963) is headquartered in the house in Vaduz where Rheinberger was born.

All searches for Harry Mathena Gilbert appear to circle back to this one Cedille disc -- and to Gilbert's 'Marionettes -- Scherzo', yet another one-off written expressly for Powell. No wonder Harry doesn't appear in the history books -- his introduction and finale (ninety seconds) suggests the 'marionettes' are high on methamphetamine or something similar -- the central segment (one hundred and twenty six seconds) consists of an intervening, instantly forgettable melody.

Burleigh's 'Four Rocky Mountain Sketches' for violin and piano, Op 11 (1914), is just one among his numerous four and five piece melodic violin compositions, almost invariably with themes from the American countryside, and it's effective and pleasing, especially in such capable hands. The four movements are titled At Sunset, The Rapids, Up the Canon and The Avalanche.

Burleigh was born in 1885 in Wyoming, NY. He attended the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory in Berlin from 1903 until 1905, where he studied violin with Anton Witek and composition with Hugo Leichtentritt. He enjoyed a brief career as a concert violinist from 1907-1909, then as a teacher, and in 1919 went to New York to study violin with Leopold Auer and composition with Ernst Bloch. From 1921-1955 he taught violin, theory and composition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He died in Madison in 1980.

It's a 'giant' step to the next short track. Massenet's exquisite Twilight ('Crépuscule') from Poèmes Pastorale (1870-72), originally a setting of words by Armand Silvestre, is accompanied throughout by Massenet's three note chords at the centre of the keyboard and Barton Pine and Hagle are perfect in the 'literal' Powell arrangement.

Indeed with this mindset, Massenet produced some of his finest work. Consider his 'eyes songs' -- Le Rêve ('En fermant les yeux') from his 1884 opera Manon; Ouvre tes yeux bleus, 1878 (from Poème d'amour No 3); Oh! si les fleurs avaient des yeux, for voice and piano (from Mélodies, Vol 7); from Le Cid, Chimene's 'Pleurez mes yeux' and 'Les yeux clos' (1905).

Without Powell and her 21st century advocate Barton Pine, pianist Max Liebling would appear to be forgotten. Nonetheless he turned to Sousa operettas El Captain and The Bride Elect and cobbled together this rollicking bit of musical buffoonery, Fantasia on Sousa Themes, a crowd-pleaser for Powell to play with the Sousa Band on its 1905 tour.

Thank goodness Cedille, Barton Pine, and Hagle had sufficient nous to end with Nobody knows the trouble.

Listen -- Johnson, arranged Powell: Nobody Knows the Trouble I See
(track 21, 3:38-4:41) © 2007 Cedille Records

The whole confection is both welcome and intruiging; a retrospective for the days of parlour music, with irresistible artistry to boot.

Copyright © 15 November 2009 Howard Smith,
Rarotonga, Cook Islands





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