Ever heard of Maud Powell? I hadn't, and I fancied myself at least a semi-knowledgeable classical music buff. My guess is that today's classical music fans are much more likely to be familiar with the contemporary violinist Rachel Barton Pine, a renowned, award-winning soloist based in Chicago, than with Powell, the turn-of-the-last-century concert hall star to whom Pine pays glowing tribute in her new CD, American Virtuosa.
In these performances (and her liner notes) Pine argues for a place for Maud Powell in the violin pantheon with the likes of Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler. More detailed notes, by the Powell expert Karen A. Shaffer, explain how each of these selections was transcribed by, written for, or dedicated to Powell during the 1890s through the 1910s. In the process Shaffer makes the case for her designation of Powell as "the first great American violinist." It's pretty clear that she was, as Wikipedia puts it, "the first American violinist to achieve international rank."
"At a time," Shaffer writes, "when much of North America was still a vast wilderness and travel was dangerous and difficult, Maud Powell braved conditions that few would tolerate today in order to bring classical music to people who had never heard a concert." By programming light, homey fare together with weightier works, Powell "built a bridge of understanding spanning from the simplest melodies to the large, complex sonata forms."
By chance or not, these selections also comprise, for us, a good survey of the musical styles in vogue in the American concert halls of the time. (The CD also includes Powell's only transcription of a true popular song, "Silver Threads Among the Gold.") Great European composers like Chopin, Sibelius, and Dvořák are represented, but American composers dominate – Amy Beach, Percy Grainger, Cecil Burleigh, Marion Bauer – as do Americana pieces, like Max Liebling's "Fantasia on Sousa Themes," Herman Bellstedt, Jr.'s "Caprice on Dixie," and most notably Bauer's "Up the Ocklawah," a sophisticated, modernistic piece which is also one the CD's most beautiful and romantic.
Historical interest aside, on purely musical terms Pine's recordings are wonderful. Dvořák's famous "Humoresque" is weirdly slow and contemplative – perhaps that's how Powell performed it – but on the whole, Pine renders the classical selections with impeccable taste to match her sweet, warm, but sprightly and crowd-pleasing tone. (Pine's accompanist, pianist Matthew Hagle, deserves much credit for his careful contrasts and sensitive settings.)
However, the real high spots of the CD come from the west side of the pond. I've already mentioned Bauer's piece. "Romance for Violin and Piano, Op. 23," written by Amy Beach for Powell when both were only 25, is a knockout of a work, gorgeous and mature. Carl Venth's "Aria" is filled with lovely, dramatic melodies, and Burleigh's "Four Rocky Mountain Sketches," while not compositionally adventurous, are full of American energy and charm.
Two transcriptions of African-American songs bear witness to Powell's very unusual (for the time) championing of music from the black American experience. She was, in fact, the first white, classical music solo artist to perform an African-American spiritual in concert. Her transcription of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's "Deep River," and Pine's performance of it, approach the sublime.
Musically rewarding and historically interesting, American Virtuosa will be a fine addition to the shelf of anyone who enjoys great violin playing, and to the library of anyone interested in the history of American music. It illuminates a time we rarely think about any more when we think about the arts in America. Brava Maud Powell, and Brava Rachel Barton Pine for bringing her back to life.