Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

This disc is a treat. In his excellent booklet notes, Kyle Gann points out the similarity between Beth Anderson’s homey, shamelessly tuneful works and those of Virgil Thomson, and the comparison is apt. I would take it a bit further, since Thomson’s own peculiar mix of simplicity and sophistication derives from his own take on French neo-classicism. I’m thinking here of Poulenc, who shares with Anderson the ability to move seamlessly from theoretically disparate styles in the wink of an eye without ever disturbing his music’s coherence or flow. All of these works are pretty: they are also captivating, which is another matter entirely.

Five of the pieces here are “swales”, Anderson’s term for a sort of musical collage or mosaic smoothly blending music of various types, most of it folksy or popular in character. That said, the impression each piece makes is quite different. Pennyroyal Swale, for example, features a good bit of country fiddling, while New Mexico Swale (the only piece for percussion and flute/piccolo in addition to string quartet) evocatively creates an aural impression of the Southwestern desert. March Swale, which opens the disc, is the most concise and humorous with its falling chromatic lines, while Rosemary Swale is the most lyrical of the lot. All of them are marvelously played by the Rubio Quartet (and friends), and despite the outward simplicity of the idiom the variety of incident ensures that the music repays repetition.

The Angel is a brief cantata for soprano, string quartet, celesta, and harp that combines two poems, both about the souls of dead children being carried up to heaven by God’s messengers. Anderson’s music follows the images and emotions of the texts very closely, and the work’s seemless contours conceal great sophistication in her use of color and harmony. Soprano Jessica Marsten’s clear diction and silvery tone suit the piece perfectly, and she manages the huge vocal range with impressive confidence at both high and low extremes of register. A personal note: I knew Jessica when we sang together in the Johns Hopkins University glee club. We were both undergraduates there in the early 1980s. She had a fine voice then, and it’s a very pleasant surprise to find her still singing (only professionally of course) and to hear her talents put to such apt use.

The Piano Concerto, dating from 1997, requires only six players in addition to the soloist: string quartet, double bass, and percussion (mostly marimba). Once again the mellifluous surface bespeaks a keen ear for color and also more than a touch of wit, such a rare thing in music these days! The music ambles along without a care in the world, sounding at times like a revival hymn with Gospel music overtones, and before you know it 13 and a half minutes have flown by. I played it again immediately, and you may well want to do the same. Joseph Kubera offers a relaxed and gracious account of the solo part, very well integrated into the ensemble. Indeed, the sonics throughout are state of the art.

Kyle Gann spends a good bit of time apologizing for Anderson’s comparative lack of complexity, and (correctly) deriding the automatic respect in academic circles granted music in more advanced (i.e., ugly, but Gann avoids that value judgment) tonal idioms. Anderson’s music is in fact very complex; it’s just not complicated. The complexity is a function of her selection of musical ideas, their originality of presentation, their curiously timeless qualities, and their ability to sound perennially fresh and vital on repetition. Perhaps a more apt distinction would be between music that flaunts its sophistication (often repelling the listener in the process), and that which conceals it in order to reveal a higher expressive purpose. Whatever the formula, Anderson’s music is characterful, delightful, and original. It deserves a place in your collection. [5/24/2004]

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: None

BETH ANDERSON - March Swale; Pennyroyal Swale; New Mexico Swale; January Swale; Rosemary Swale; The Angel; Piano Concerto

Share This Review: