Classical Music Album: Florence Price — “Uncovered, Vol. 2”
By Jonathan Blumhofer
This is an album that’s at once musically significant but, more than that, thoroughly enjoyable. How tragic that, largely on account of her race and gender, Florence Price’s music was almost erased.
The more one hears of Florence Price’s music, the more one becomes aware of how significant the recent resurgence of interest in her music is. That nearly all of it has been overlooked for so long — and almost lost — is a discussion for another day. Suffice it to say, Price is no token figure: that she was an African American woman is entirely incidental; her music stands on its own.
That’s the big takeaway from the Catalyst Quartet’s new all-Price album. The second installment in the group’s ongoing Uncovered series focusing on the music of Black composers (last year’s inaugural disc highlighted chamber music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor), Volume Two celebrates Price’s chamber music.
There’s a lot to go on — nearly two hours’ worth.
The most substantial piece, Price’s A-minor Quintet for Piano and Strings, got its first recording just last year, courtesy of the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective. Like that one, this performance impresses for its technical and expressive excellence: everything’s beautifully balanced and comes to life just as it should.
What’s more, the Quintet’s mix of Romantic structure and vernacular influence is neatly connected. The big first movement gets all the requisite sweep and direction the writing demands. Meanwhile, the Juba’s a blast (particularly its boogie-ish middle part) and the jig-like finale snaps.
There’s a similar degree of personality evident in a second, shorter and undated Piano Quintet that gets its recorded debut here. While there’s not much by way of clouds or shadows in its three brief movements, the Catalysts and pianist Michelle Cann deliver an elegant, flowing account of Price’s affecting writing, which is never uninvolved for any of the parts.
The remaining fare — all for string quartet — is also engaging.
Price’s 1935 String Quartet is, like her contemporaneous A-minor Quintet and Symphony No. 1, etched on a big canvas. While the first of its four movements displays some of the less-bracing tendencies of her large-scale writing (particularly a start-stop quality to phrasings), its music that’s fundamentally driven by contrasts of texture, dynamics, and harmony. That works to carry the day. The remaining movements — a plaintive Andante, lusty Juba, and bluesy finale — provide all the charm and color that one, at this point, expects from Price in such moments.
The Catalyst’s performance is captivating. Indeed, it takes a special kind of ensemble to pull off a piece of such contrapuntal density and technical difficulty and make it sound like they’ve been playing it forever. Suffice it to say that for security, balance, and character, the Catalyst’s take on the Price Quartet sounds as comfortable and familiar as if it were Beethoven or Brahms.
So it goes, also, in the group’s reading of Price’s 1929 Quartet. A two-movement effort that may (or may not) be unfinished, it showcases the composer’s considerable abilities as a melodist as well as her ear for atmospheric effect (especially in the Andante’s impish second subject).
Rounding out the program are two sets of arrangements: four Negro Folksongs and the Five Folksongs.
The former, completed around 1947, are, broadly speaking, soulful and contrapuntal. Though “Go Down, Moses” presents something of a stylistic conundrum — the blend of Spiritual melodic content with formal quartet arrangement — is a touch jarring, the soaring violin writing over low-string tremolos near the end is potent. Echoes of Ives creep out of the shadows in “Somebody’s knockin’ at yo do” while “Little David play on yo harp” and “Joshua fit de battle ob Jericho” are invitingly vigorous.
The Five Folksongs, on the other hand, are among Price’s last works. Dating from 1951, they each display a tendency to become increasingly colorful and complex as they proceed. This process is successful in isolation but, heard over five movements, becomes a mite redundant.
Even so, the Catalyst’s performance of the set is top-drawer. The group draws out the harmonic pungency of “Calvary,” gamely highlights the textural contrasts of “Oh my darlin’, Clementine’s” variations, and mines the warmth and vigor, respectively, of “Drink to me only with thine eyes” and “Shortnin’ bread.” Most touching is the concluding “Swing low, sweet chariot,” which unfolds almost like an instrumental conversation with the song’s lyrics: the questioning end of each phrase going off into a commentary or mediation on fragments of the familiar refrain.
Taken together, then, this is an album that’s musically significant but, more than that, thoroughly enjoyable. How tragic that, largely on account of her race and gender, Price’s music was almost erased. Yet how happy it is that revivals do happen — and how exciting that, thanks to the advocacy of groups like the Catalysts and musicians like Cann, we’re seeing a deserving composer finally taking her place in the American canon.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.