Lurking in my reviews backlog for some time, here’s a book which has continued to beckon, so let me finally highlight it as the epitome of a great idea brilliantly brought to life.
The so-called “core repertoire” for classical piano has long been predominantly drawn from the great composers of the Central European Tradition (Germany, Austria and Hungary), France and Russia. Meanwhile, composers from the UK and USA have somewhat struggled to gain comparable recognition beyond their own borders.
This bumper anthology from publishers Boosey & Hawkes collates piano works from an even and well-matched spread of composers from both sides of the Atlantic, all of whom lived and worked in the 20th century. As such it offers a rather wonderful introduction to some great music, much of it too-little performed, but all hugely worthy of the pianist’s attention.
The collection features 26 works (most of which are multi-movement) by 17 composers as follows:
• Jamaican Rumba
• Four Anniversarys
• Three Sketches
• Holiday Diary
• Night-Piece (Notturno)
• The Cat and the Mouse
• Midday Thoughts
David Del Tredici
• Aeolian Ballade
Peter Maxwell Davies
• Farewell to Stromness
• Five Little Pieces
• Three Sanday Pieces
• Yesnaby Ground
• Five Piano Pieces
• Episodes, Vol.1
• Railroad (Travel Song)
• Window in 7’s
• Six Friends
• Old English Worthies (adapted/edited_)
• Franco Assetto: Drawing Virgil Thomson
• Homage to Maria Freund and to the Harp
• Persistently Pastoral: Aaron Copland
The collection is clearly an embarrassment of riches, but I suspect I’m not the only one who needs to admit that, while these composers are mostly well known to me, I am familiar with too few of the works themselves.
A quick word about levels; the book prominently claims it is for “Intermediate to Early Advanced Level”, but I would suggest the majority of the pieces here are firmly for the Advanced player, for whom the few easier pieces (such as the charming Alex Rowley, Ned Rorem and Carlisle Floyd miniatures) would be useful as quick study material, and as an introduction to those composers’ music.
Meanwhile, Britten’s Notturno, the immense Aeolian Ballade by David Del Tredici and John Ireland’s virtuosic showpiece Rhapsody are easily diploma level in my view. I’m therefore placing my review in the Advanced and Diploma categories.
This is a sturdy publication, with an inviting glossy cover:
With so much content, it’s probably no surprise that this is a big book: 208 pages to be precise.
It is held together with a stiff spine, which needs some persuasion to stay open on the book stand. I’ve had no problem playing from it, and the book is certainly robust, but I wonder how it will fare in the longer term. That said, those performing these works may ultimately prefer to get individual copies for that purpose; as a sampler that showcases so much brilliant music, this collection can’t be faulted and represents outstanding value.
The notation is lifted from previous (original) editions and engraving, which means that fonts/etc vary a little throughout the book. This is never a problem, and all the music presentation is excellent. Fingering is only included in a small number of easier works: the Floyd and Rowley; elsewhere this is left to the performer’s discretion to work out.
There is another pleasing addition: the volume begins with a five-page Composer Biographies section. These are resumés rather than anecdotal, but offer well-written and engaging background information on each of the featured writers.
The idea of bringing together in a single volume some of the greatest British and American piano works is undoubtedly a good one, and is executed here with aplomb.
Boosey & Hawkes have, of course, access to a catalogue of some of the very finest music of the last century, composed by some of the most distinctive voices. Their selection is nothing short of inspired, juxtaposing post-romantic chestnuts such as Bridge’s Rosemary with the atmospheric atonality of Peter Maxwell Davies and Elliott Carter, while including along the way favourites by Britten, Bernstein and Virgil Thomson.
Speaking personally, it was a delight to discover the music of American composers (in particular) whose works I had not encountered: Tredici, Rorem and Lees especially impress. I hope that piano colleagues on the other side of the pond are equally glad to discover the works of British composers whose music might have been overlooked.
The outstanding realisation of this cross-Atlantic vision is, for me, the most joyous achievement here. But quite apart from that, this collection perhaps offers one of the most affordable, compelling and fascinating introductions to this repertoire that I have encountered.
Though not perhaps best suited as a performing edition, Piano Music by British and American Composers is a fabulous compendium, throwing back the curtains and opening the window on a world of stunning music that advanced pianists will surely enjoy exploring for years to come.
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