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Music Review: Ruthanne Schempf – An American Mirage

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For her latest album, An American Mirage (MS 1313), renowned pianist Ruthanne Schempf performs an intriguing selection of works by some of the finest and most respected American composers. Her finely balanced and carefully chosen program is accurately described as “Exotic Piano Images by Beach, Copland, Foote, Griffes, MacDowell, and Nevin.”

American Art Music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was heavily influenced by German Romanticism. This was particularly the case with a quartet of composers from New England, namely Foote, Nevin, Beach, and MacDowell. However by 1918 following a wave of anti-German feeling that followed the end of the First World War, the movement had all but faded from view.

Ms. Schempf is a graduate of Michigan State University, having subsequently attended the Manhattan School of Music where she earned a DMA. For An American Mirage she opens with arguably one of the album's most intriguing selections, “Piano Sonata” in three movements by Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920).

Griffes was a New Yorker who studied in Berlin under the composer Engelbert Humperdinck. By 1907 he had returned to America where his early compositions reflected his time studying in Germany. He would often travel into Manhattan to hear new music from the likes of Varese, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, among others. His work has been described as both Germanic and Impressionistic. However, his “Piano Sonata” sits somewhat apart with its exotic and irregular figurations and time signatures. It is a challenging piece that opens an enthralling, and expertly executed album.

Ethelbert Woodbridge Nevin (1862-1901) was raised in Pittsburgh but by 1892 had traveled to France where he wrote his two Etudes. His beautiful “Etude In Form Of A Romance, Op. 18, No. 1” and the challenging “Etude In Form Of A Scherzo, Op. 18, No. 2” are both performed here. They are widely considered to be the most technically demanding works to emerge from his tragically short life. Again he was influenced by German composers, particularly Wagner in his case. He died in 1901 at the age of only 38.

Bostonian Arthur Foote (1853-1937) wrote his “Five Poems (after Omar Khayyam), Op. 41” in 1898. This is perhaps his most accomplished work for solo piano. For the composition Foote selected a total of seven Quatrains from the 1889 edition of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Starting with the "5th Quatrain: Imran is gone,” we are swept through a powerfully evocative and highly memorable set of works rich with moments of tantalizing subtlety.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944), also known as Mrs. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, was a gifted only child raised in New Hampshire. After the death of her husband she traveled to Europe before returning to New York where she set up home. During this time she was inspired by some of the sounds that she'd heard whilst growing up near the New Hampshire woodlands. This is particularly the case with the two compositions included here, “A Hermit Thrush At Eve” and “At Morn, Op. 92, Nos 1 & 2." The captivating sound of the bird’s song, at two separate times of the day, provides a delightful composition which is again excellently performed by Ms Schempf.

The New Hampshire theme is continued for the next selection, “Woodland Sketches Op. 51,” which was written by another New Yorker, Edward Alexander MacDowell (1860-1908). In 1877 the young pianist had traveled to Paris where he was a classmate of Debussy. From there he spent time in both Stuttgart and Frankfurt before finally returning to America, also living in New Hampshire. Once again, the rich woodland area provides the inspiration behind this wonderful four-part piece.

Lastly, we have one of America’s most renowned composers, Aaron Copland (1900-1990). In 1920 Copland also went to France where he heard works by Saint-Saens, Ravel, Stravinsky, and others. Upon his return he lived in Bedford, New York and, finding himself in need of new avenues, adopted a more experimental approach to his work. He spent six months during 1929 writing his “Piano Variations.”

This well chosen, expertly performed set perfectly represents some often overlooked American music that at turns remains a rewarding and refreshing experience.

An American Mirage is available through MSR Classics who boast a large and eclectic catalogue of releases on their website.

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