Progress remains all too slow, but the classical music industry is taking halting steps toward gender equality. Female conductors are taking their place on the podium more than ever before; women are among the most important composers writing today. There has even been a notable rise of interest in music by figures from the past: Clara Schumann, Louise Farrenc and Florence Price, to name just three.
And now one of the world’s greatest string quartets, the Takacs, has taken up the work of Amy Beach (1867-1944). Garrick Ohlsson joins the quartet for Beach’s Piano Quintet in F sharp minor on a sublime recent release on the Hyperion label, easily the most prestigious recording of her music to date.
Beach’s “Gaelic” Symphony and her Piano Concerto made her an American icon at the turn of the 20th century, and, if her music has never been entirely forgotten since her death, its renaissance in the hands of artists of this stature is well overdue.
Mr. Ohlsson and the Takacs violinists, Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes, spoke in an interview about the quintet, which had its premiere in Boston in 1908, with the composer at the piano. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Why did you decide to record the Beach alongside its near contemporary, the Elgar Piano Quintet?
EDWARD DUSINBERRE We had wanted to make a recording of the Elgar quintet together, and I think we were all wondering what would be a good pairing with it. I’ve always liked Amy Beach’s music very much, but I hadn’t quite realized that the two pieces were written so close in time to each other — and that was the only excuse I needed.
The opening of the first movement:
GARRICK OHLSSON We certainly did look around. But as Ed said, we found this beautiful, truly beautiful piece, which was written so close by. I loved the piece right from the start and my affection for it grew. This is unapologetically a masterpiece of its kind.
HARUMI RHODES I come to it from a slightly different angle from Ed and Garrick, only because in my previous life I played in several freelance chamber music groups. I actually played the Amy Beach quite a bit, because that’s the kind of repertoire that we explored: these fantastic gems that maybe aren’t recorded or performed as often. The Elgar, in comparison to the Beach, is a more famous work, and yet I had much more experience with the Beach than with the Elgar. I love playing it.
DUSINBERRE It was a little bit frustrating, because, knowing that we were recording it, we wanted to program it several times in concert, but there were not that many promoters who ended up taking it, which was a surprise to me. I think we ended up playing it only a couple of times.
OHLSSON Many sponsors don’t want to take that chance, which is a shame, when so much could be made of it. I’ve been asked already: Did you do it because she’s a woman composer? I said absolutely not; we did it because it’s a first-rate piece. We’re not crusading here; that’s a worthy crusade, but that’s not what we were after.
RHODES Part of the context is that when promoters hire the Takacs Quartet and Garrick Ohlsson, they are looking to program certain things — say, Brahms or Schumann. The Amy Beach quintet isn’t part of their mind-set in that pairing, and so they might program Beach, but they would give that perhaps to a different group. It’s not just about programming; it’s also about associations with certain artists, and it’s absolutely wonderful to open that realm a little bit.
Since Beach was a prodigiously talented pianist, is the piano part particularly difficult?
OHLSSON Yes, the piano part is very virtuosic. In the manner of Brahms, some of the virtuosity is a bit hidden; the very pretty, almost three-handed second subject in the first movement doesn’t sound at all difficult, but you spend more time on those two minutes than on the whole movement or even the whole piece.
RHODES That’s one of my favorite themes in the piece, because it makes me feel like it has this rich soil in it. It isn’t this full forest, or this big showy garden; the soil itself is so full of content. That theme shows up in other places in the piece, and gives birth to ideas of variation, to so much possibility in the other lines of the quintet. There’s so much material, to then vary, that I feel like there are all of these works that she didn’t write — that she had more to say.
The second theme of the first movement:
The piece is built on a theme drawn from Brahms’s piano quintet, but what is unique about Beach’s style?
RHODES It’s extremely introverted, full of insecurity, and yet at the same time it’s some of the most extroverted, Romantic, outwardly heart-on-sleeve music. It’s this interesting balance of seeing inside someone’s psyche, so it’s very personal, but it’s also so emotional, to the point where you don’t need to read a pamphlet to understand the music. You just have to listen to it and relate to how human it is.
OHLSSON She says everything she needs to say in 25 minutes. That’s a quality that all good composers admire.
RHODES I feel like there’s a lot of crying, gasping; even when we’re all in octaves or in unison, we all come in with these sighing gestures. The whole thing feels like this combination of repression and outward emotion. That conflict in itself has a lot of desperation in it, constantly yearning for more.
OHLSSON But it also does break out — not exactly into full triumph, but climactically, and very passionately in the slow movement.
The opening of the second movement:
RHODES That moment is a really special bit of writing. The scene has already been set in the beginning of the movement, in the other instruments, and then all of a sudden the second violin emerges with a low-register, pianissimo rendition of the melody that literally comes from within, from an inner voice. The way it combines with the beautiful piano writing, and then merges with the first violin, is a magical compositional technique.