Amy Beach, born in 1867 in New Hampshire, was singing in tune by one, harmonising with her mother by two, and by four playing piano and composing with distinction. At 16 she made her concerto debut with the Boston Symphony, later marrying a man older than her father who insisted she give up performing but allowed her to compose, which she did prolifically – some 300 works – up to her death in 1944.
BBC SSO - Scottish Inspirations, City Halls, Glasgow ***
Unfortunately, in this case, the story is more interesting than the music, as Saturday’s performance of Beach’s 1897 “Gaelic” Symphony by the BBC SSO under Thomas Dausgaard made plain.
Inspired by Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, Beach certainly had a handle on big form and the expressive potential of the Romantic orchestra. But there is something sickly, quaint and unrefined about the gushing music that saturates its extensive four-movement framework. With homespun Irish and Scottish melodies as the thematic catalyst, it’s like Dvorak (note the persistent triangle) touched by the Blarney Stone. The SSO’s turbulent performance echoed its overheated excess.
Also in this Scottish Inspirations programme, Dausgaard presented world premieres by Bent Sørensen and Emma-Ruth Richards. The most intriguing was Sørensen’s “Enchantress” (after Walter Scott’s poem), its five intermezzi like a surreal mist variously defined by shimmering iridescent textures, its poignant allusions to Beethoven – the Fourth Piano Concerto – a ghostly (if accidental) reminder that this year marks the 250th anniversary of his birth.
Richards’ song cycle, The Sail of Flame, featuring mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer, warmed as it progressed, but fell periodically foul of heavy orchestration. It was in the closing settings of Don Paterson’s “Palm, after Rilke” (a notable softening of the sung line), Jackie Kay’s “Pencil, Knife” (frenetic thrills), and Carol Ann Duffy’s “Anne Hathaway, that magic happened. Ken Walton