A new recording from the Catalyst Quartet of music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is part of an encouraging recent trend to celebrate Black classical music composers. It remains to be seen whether much of the music being aired out by artists and labels today will find places in the canon or even persist in the cultural consciousness; the momentum of white (mostly male) composers’ oeuvres is a mighty one. But the Catalyst is doing its part, championing composers who deserves to be heard much more often, and beginning with one of the greatest.
Coleridge-Taylor, born in London in 1875 to a white British mother and a Sierra Leonean doctor, lived only to age 37. But the music on Uncovered: Vol. 1, the Catalyst’s new album with pianist Stewart Goodyear and clarinetist Anthony McGill, shows that Coleridge-Taylor’s vast talent was already evident in his student years.
The young composer was inspired by Brahms, Dvořák, Grieg, and others, and you can easily hear the influence of Brahms in the Piano Quintet. The first movement’s dense romanticism is on full display in this exhilarating performance. The structure and thematic content of the “Allegro con moto” have the sophistication of a composer in full maturity. Goodyear and the string players deliver it with a well-seasoned, controlled flair. This is music full of motion and momentum that you can lose yourself in just as you can in Brahms.
The slow Larghetto movement reveals the composer’s skill with textures and with subtle, unexpected rhythmic developments and embellishments. The musicians realize these with exquisite sensitivity. The melodies pass almost imperceptibly from instrument to instrument, with the piano playing a large role in the drama, right down to the delicate, playful arpeggio at the end. The Scherzo has a very serious air, though it’s scored and played with a light touch and the interlude has a simple folk flavor.
High emotion surges through the Finale. The Catalyst takes this movement at a sensibly measured tempo that reveals the inner workings of the composer’s compositional skill – until a joyous dance takes over two minutes before the end. The Quintet ends a bit abruptly, but with a hopeful feeling.
The influence of the Romantic European composers is evident too in the five-part Fantasiestücke for string quartet. But the quiet meanderings and tight harmonies of its Prelude actually remind me both of Mozart’s string quintets and of certain moments in Beethoven’s deep pneumatic roar. The richly orchestrated Serenade has a sweetness to it, but also, despite the moderate tempo, a dirge-like feeling; one senses here, as in all these pieces, that the composer was working off deeply felt emotions. The Humoresque is an irresistible little masterpiece of the form, lanky folk melodies loping over bright sixteenth-note figures.
A dominant legato feel decorated with trills makes the Minuet feel like a dream version of that old dance, except when we’re shaken awake by startling unison passages. Coleridge-Taylor gave even freer rein to his imagination in the final movement, simply notated “Dance” as if he didn’t want to tie himself to any particular tradition. Within its homey setting it shows a strong capacity for narrative drama, to which the musicians bring all the requisite energy.
The Clarinet Quintet in F sharp minor combines Romantic lushness with folksy melodies, tempting one to see this music as a precursor to the mellifluous American composers of the century that dawned just a few years after the young Coleridge-Taylor composed these pieces. (Later in his short life he did visit the United States more than once, and his talent and success earned him the nickname the “African Mahler.”) On the other hand, I sense a Dvořák influence in the gentle Larghetto, which evokes the green rolling hills of Central Europe much more than the rain and polluted fog of a 19th-century English city.
McGill and the string players make the rather intricate three-part Scherzo sound like a vivacious breeze, while the Finale is a perpetual-motion thrill with an unexpected pastoral break leading to a pulse-pounding coda.
The Catalyst Quartet and their guests bring out the charm and sophistication of all these pieces. It’s a marvelous recording on two levels. One can gape at the maturity of the music Coleridge-Taylor created while still a student. And one can feel the excitement of discovering great music one didn’t know, and knowing top-notch musicians are championing it.
Uncovered: Vol. 1, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is out now on Azica Records and available at Amazon and iTunes. Volume 2 will feature the works of Florence Price, and further volumes will feature Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, William Grant Still, and George Walker among other Black composers.