Songs of Amy Beach

With the
revival of interest in American Romantic music, Beach has begun to appear on more recital and
concert programs. Now, this recital disc devoted entirely to Amy Beach’s songs,
performed by baritone Patrick Mason and pianist Joanne Polk, should bring Beach squarely into
the mainstream of serious American art song composers. It is refreshing to hear her songs in a
man’s voice, and a special treat to hear the accompaniments, written by a composer
who began life as a child piano prodigy and who clearly has a sensitivity for the instrument,
performed by an artist who has already made a name for herself recording Beach’s
complete piano works for the Arabesque label.

The program is presented chronologically, with an ear for contrast in mood, so that the
56-minute program gives a satisfying sense of the largely self-taught composer’s
range and development. While her songs may not have broken much new ground musically, she was
very good at what she did, and these songs are quite interesting and satisfying to listen to.
Through Patrick Mason’s extensive notes, for which he acknowledges the help of
Adrienne Fried Block, Beach’s biographer, we get a real sense of the composer as a
person, and of her relationship with her husband, whose poetry she sometimes set and to whom
each year, on his birthday, she dedicated a song, which he would sing as she accompanied him.

Block’s biography of Beach is entitled Passionate Victorian, which
describes the songs on this disk quite well. The texts are for the most part contemporary with
Beach herself, or from a generation earlier, so the poetic diction of some of the earlier
songs contains some Victorianisms that may sound dated to us today. But the poems’
resonance with Beach’s passionate nature shows up clearly in the musical treatment
she gives them. Mason points out in his notes on “The Summer Wind” (1891),
“the sensuality of Amy Beach’s music…the eroticizing of Nature
in poetry encourages unashamed expression of sexual feelings not otherwise appropriate at the
time (for a woman at any rate). Amy seems liberated by these texts to reveal her true

Mason’s straightforward, authentic delivery of these texts helps keep a song like
“Baby” from slipping into simple sentimentality, instead profoundly
expressing a parent’s wonder at the miracle of a newborn child. The
singer’s diction is for the most part excellent, and I found it easy to follow most
of this all-English-language program without having to consult the texts. My one regret is
that, perhaps in an effort to achieve this clarity, Mason covers his higher notes more than I
would like, making a less resonant sound at the tops of the soaring phrases than the music
deserves. In the middle and lower range, however, his voice is quite beautiful (I particularly
enjoyed the long held word “past” in his low range in the opening song,

Listeners interested in exploring Amy Beach’s songs have a choice between this disc
and another all-Beach collection on the budget Naxos label by mezzo-soprano Katherine Kelton
and pianist Catherine Bringerud. Naxos’s disc is about half the price of this one
and contains about twenty more minutes of music (36 songs, compared with 22 on this Bridge
release). While there is some overlap between the two programs, many of the songs on each disc
are not duplicated on the other, so the two may be considered supplemental rather than direct
rivals. If I had to choose between the two, I would probably choose the Naxos disc if my
interest were largely in getting intelligent, professional performances of the most songs,
including songs in French and German, for a very reasonable price. On the other hand, while
Katherine Kelton is an expert on Beach’s songs, the Naxos budget constraints
don’t allow for the booklet to contain notes that are anywhere near as extensive as
Mason’s. Thus, the Bridge disc enables us to feel that we’ve really gotten
to know the woman whose photograph at age sixteen graces its cover. Furthermore, while
Catherine Bringerud is comfortable in the Beach accompaniments, Joanne Polk’s
extensive experience with her solo music gives the highly important piano parts of these songs
a level of detail and excitement that helps to make the performances on Bridge more memorable
and the overall program more interesting to listen to as a complete program.

Barbara Miller

image_description=Songs of Amy Beach
product_title=Songs of Amy Beach
product_by=Patrick Mason, baritone, Joanne Polk, piano
product_id=Bridge 9182 [CD]