Both Beach and MacDowell were formidably accomplished pianists who wrote concertos in barnstorming virtuoso style, for themselves and their contemporaries to play, but they could also turn their hand to the lucrative domestic market for piano-duet music. In doing so they also tapped into the 19th-century, Romantic preoccupation with childhood which Schumann had encapsulated in his Kinderszenen of 1838.
MacDowell wrote his Moon-Pictures Op.21 in the winter of 1884–5 and subtitled them ‘after H.C. Andersen’s Picture-Book without Pictures’, referring to an 1848 collection of short bedtime stories. Published in 1901 and dedicated to the composer’s niece, the six duets of the album’s title collection, Summer Dreams by Beach, are shorter and technically simpler than the Moon-Pictures, but they are prefaced by literary quotations which once more indicate that this is not music for children so much as music for adults to play to children, and for adults to play at being children. In any case, simpler means and fewer notes need hardly imply naivety of expression, and Beach’s self-taught technique was too rigorous to allow anything less than the most deftly fashioned work to escape her desk. Composed in 1883, Beach’s brief 3 Movements for piano duet are the work of a prodigiously talented teenager who knows her early-Romantic piano literature – including Kinderszenen – inside out, but who also understands at this stage how to emulate rather than merely copy her models. In the following year of 1884, the 23-year-old MacDowell wrote his 3 Poems Op.20. Strictly speaking, Hamlet and Ophelia is the outlier in this collection, since MacDowell composed it in 1894 as a tone-poem for orchestra in the Lisztian manner, and then made this two-piano transcription rather than leaving the work to the kind of professional arranger habitually commissioned by publishers for such work. Nevertheless, he took the kind of care over it that Brahms did in arranging his symphonies, and the piano-duet version retains the brooding tension of the opening and effectively transfers the violinistic surges of Hamlet’s main section to the keyboard. The album’s final collection takes a chronological leap forward to 1952, but its nostalgia-drenched mood belongs to an intermediate age. ‘One might imagine a divertissement in a setting of the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel’, Barber explained in a letter to his publisher, ‘the year about 1914, epoch of the first tangos. Souvenirs – remembered with affection, not in irony or with tongue in cheek, but in amused tenderness.’ Barber, it should be noted, would have been four years old at the time, and so these are ‘souvenirs’ in the manner of sepia-tinted postcards.
- This beautifully conceived program brings together the complete works for piano duet by three major American composers: Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), Amy Beach (1867-1944) and Samuel Barber (1910-1981).
- MacDowell wrote his Moon-Pictures Op.21 in the winter of 1884-5, and subtitled them ‘after H.C. Andersen’s Picture-Book without Pictures’, referring to an 1848 collection of short bedtime stories. They show MacDowell’s great talent for evoking atmosphere and small-scale drama.
- The Summer Dreams Op.47 by Amy Beach are delightful and picturesque miniatures, evoking fairy tales and children’s stories.
- Six dances make up Samuel Barber's suite Souvenirs Op.28: Waltz, Schottische, Pas de Deux, Two Step, Hesitation-Tango, and Galop. They are coloured by post-Stravinskian melodic intervals and harmonies even while the dance rhythms are those of an earlier century.
- Emma Abbate and Julian Perkins have given duo recitals for the Mozart Society of America and at many UK venues, including the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, St George’s Bristol, St John’s Smith Square, Hatchlands Park and the Russell Collection, Edinburgh. Praised for their ‘‘impressive sensitivity’’ (Early Music Reviews) and for telling ‘‘a totally convincing story with every piece’’ (The Arts Desk), their recordings have received five-star reviews in BBC Music Magazine and other magazines.