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Communing with American Romantics


Artem Belogurov at Chickering (BMint staff photo)
Artem Belogurov at Chickering (BMInt staff photo)

For Odessa, Ukraine-born, Boston-based Artem Belogurov’s second appearance on the Frederick Collection’s Historic Piano Concerts spring series, he offered a selection of short character pieces predominately from the last three decades of the 19th century by five New England Romantic composers [aka Boston Second School]. Their now nearly  forgotten and rarely played  music was a staple of the recital repertoire and in household piano benches during this era.

To revive some examples Belogurov chose a Boston Chickering from 1862; the company was the first to patent the cast iron frame and build instruments with one. This 8.5 feet long instrument, serial number 24463, has a 7-octave range, a single-piece frame, and is parallel strung. Its rosewood veneered case is less elaborate than many Victorian grands, although the cheeks at the ends of the keyboard are leaf and scroll carved. It has just two pedals, una corda on the left and damper on the right, mounted on an inverted lyre-shaped lyre. It, too, was making its second appearance on the series, having débuted in October 2012.

Belogurov opened with the Suite No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15, by Arthur Foote, who has the distinction of being the country’s very first composer trained entirely in the US, at NEC with Chadwick and with Paine at Harvard. Written in 1886 and revised in 1915, it has four movements, somewhat like the suites of the Baroque era, but not with dance rhythm titles: Prelude, Fugue, Romance, and Capriccio. He followed this with a selection of two of Foote’s 1898 Five poems after Omar Khayyam, Op. 41: Nos 3, “Think, as in this battered Caravanserai…,” and 5, “Yon rising Moon that looks for us again…,” works inspired by but not setting the text of the poems. Like these composers, Khayyam was popular then, but forgotten now; he belongs to the period’s fascination orientalia. Belogurov concluded the first half with the first four of Arthur Whiting’s (He also studied at NEC with Chadwick and at Harvard.) c. 1895 Six Bagatelles for the Piano: Caprice, Humoresque (Allegro giacoso), Bagatelle (Vivace), and Idylle, or more precisely, he planned to conclude it that way, but he unintentionally rose from the stool after the third. Note that these titles all use the French name for the form, but the works are actually more neo-classical in style, like the Foote Suite.

To correct his lapse, he opened the second half, after an apology, with the fourth and proceeded with six, Nos 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, and 10, of the ten pieces in John Knowles Paine’s (another Harvard grad) In the Country, Op. 26, from 1873, the earliest work on the program. They have typical Romantic evocative titles of what they are intended to portray or suggest; “Woodnotes,” “Wayside Flowers,” “The Shepherd’s Lament,“ “Village Dance,” “The Mill,” and “Welcome Home” respectively, together with Italian tempo indications. He followed this with the last of Paine’s Three Piano Pieces, Op. 4, from 1882-84, Fuga giocosa [based on the ditty “Over the Fence is Out”]. He played three of George Whitefield Chadwick’s Five Pieces, c. 1905. The most recent work on the program, Nos 1, “Prélude joyeux,” 2, “Dans le canot,” and 5, “Les grenouilles,” whose titles show that period’s fascination with all things French, having finally broken free of the worship of all things German that had dominated the earlier American musical training and tradition. Belogurov closed with Margaret Ruthven Lang’s (Her father Benjamin Johnson Lang was director of the Handel and Haydn Society and a fine pianist who introduced many works to Boston; she studied at NEC with Chadwick and privately with Paine.) Rhapsody in E Minor, Op. 21, published in 1895, and whose prefatory poetic stanza by Victor Hugo, “Puisqu’ici bas. …,” was printed in French and English in the program booklet. He rewarded the audience’s enthusiastic applause with an encore, Ethelbert Nevin’s (1862-1901; technically not a New Englander; b. in Penn, but d. in Conn.) “Ophelia.”

Belogurov carefully selected from sets of pieces some not necesarrily intended to be performed entire, to give, in several instances, different composers’ handlings of the same forms, like the fugue and the capriccio, and also to provide a representative sample of the diverse kinds of character pieces that were popular in the Victorian age. Because it gave such a good perspective, I forgave the program for having only one extended work, the opening Foote Suite. Further enhancing these selections were the ways in which they showed off all of the piano’s features: a dark, rumbling bass register and a bright, bell-like soprano one surrounding its husky, veiled middle that brought out the differences in the music in a way a modern instrument cannot, and produced the soundscape for which the composers undoubtedly wrote, in view of the dominance of the company’s instruments in the New England of their time; it veritably evoked for my ears a Victorian parlor, where lighting was dim and wall coverings were dark and heavy. This was a second reason for forgiving the absence of more large works.

Yet a third was Belogurov’s amazing, phenomenally even, expression and handling of the instrument and the music. Although he played with scores throughout, he was in no way glued to them; indeed it was fairly obvious that he was close to having them committed to memory, having already prepared this repertoire for a recording on a similar Chickering and having performed it at Harvard Musical Association at the request of Lee Eiseman, the publisher of the Intelligencer.

The amazing thing about this instrument is that it has a power equal to a modern one, but with far more color, nuance, and shading. Belogurov exploited all of this impressively and masterfully. To my mind, it represents an ideal happy medium between its all-wooden predecessors and the all-too-uniform and bright sound of its modern successors. It’s a shame such instruments are no longer being made. Missing, however, were some program notes, spoken or written, to help audience members understand and appreciate this period and these composers which Belogurov so wonderfully and revealingly performed.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December, 2009. He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and also writes for its web site: Classical Voice North America

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