Pianist Artem Belogurov is either misguided or prescient in scheduling the only Boston-area concert listed for the first Saturday in the New Year. Something of a celebration and CD-release party, the event directs attention to composers of Boston’s so-called Second School; a neglected lot, they deserve the recognition provided by Belogurov’s new CD, “American Romantics: The Boston Scene.”
Deriving its tones from a soulful 1873 Chickering grand in St. John’s Episcopal Church, 27 Devens Street, Charlestown, the hour-long concert and the CD introduce listeners to characterful short works of Arthur Foote, John Knowles Paine, Margaret Ruthven Lang, Arthur Whiting, Ethelbert Nevin, and George Chadwick.
In 2013, Belogurov was engaged by Lee Eiseman of the Harvard Musical Association—an institution founded in 1837, long potent in the musical life of Boston—to read and help select a program of works by members of the club. Belogurov’s sight-reading was so poetic that Eiseman decided to engage him for a recital during HMA’s 175th season. As a young Latvian/Russian/Ukrainian uninfluenced by the fashionable disparagement these composers typically face, Belogurov discovered music so fresh and captivating that the idea of recording the repertoire came at once.
Belogurov was born in Riga, Latvia, and grew up in Odessa, Ukraine, before moving to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory. Today he divides his time between Boston and Amsterdam. He received early training at the Stolyarsky School of Music in Odessa, majoring in theory, piano performance, and composition. He received his bachelor of music in piano performance from NEC, where he studied with Gabriel Chodos, Patricia Zander, and Victor Rosenbaum. He has also studied with Peter Serkin. With a repertoire from the 18th to the 21st centuries, Belogurov plays a range of pianos as varied as the music. The instrument to be used on January 3rd is an elegantly carved grand built around 1873, with the long sweetly singing sustain so characteristic of Chickerings. Its parallel stringing allows both power and clarity throughout its compass. St John’s resonant acoustic flatters the instrument.
In America and elsewhere, the 19th century was the great age of the piano, not just for professional performers and composers but also as a middle class icon. In addition to its role in the concert hall, it became a major source of home entertainment at a time before technology made it possible to hear music on phonographs and radios. Musical members of the family would acquire sheet music from Europe and also by the vast number of American composers, some aimed at virtuosic public performances, but a large part intended for well-trained and serious amateurs at home. The works on Belogurov’s CD and in the performance are from leading New England composers of the last third of the 19th century, mostly in character pieces of the scale made so popular by Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. Each of these small works has a distinct personality, ranging from references to older musical genres (Foote’s Suite, Paine’s Fuga giocosa), evocations of moods (Foote’s Romance, Whiting’s Humoreske), scenes from the country (Paine’s Village Dance, Chadwick’s Barcarolle: dans le canot), or familiar characters (Nevin’s Narcissus and Ophelia). Eclipsed in following generations by the modernists and avant-garde, these late Romantics nonetheless produced a body of work that is distinctive, charming, and sometimes moving. Very little has been recorded until now, none on a contemporaneous instrument, one that would allow us today to hear something like what the composers themselves grew up with, heard, and imagined.
After its founding, in 1823, Chickering & Sons of Boston evolved into the leading piano manufacturer in the United States, indeed one of the most respected and innovative companies in the world. They were awarded a gold medal at the Paris Exposition of 1867, and their instruments were exported to Europe (Liszt is said to have owned two) and in the USA were regularly found both in domestic settings and on the concert stage (in 1875, Hans von Bülow premiered Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in Boston on a Chickering). They built a great variety of instruments, from uprights and square pianos to mighty 9’ concert grands, and were ongoing experimenters in action and design overall. In the early 20th century they were one of the few manufacturers to respond to the rekindled interest in earlier keyboard instruments, hiring Arnold Dolmetsch to advise them on clavichords and harpsichords, spinets and virginals. In 1908 Chickering became relegated to one brand among many held by the American Piano Company. At this point Baldwin (which itself stopped domestic production six years ago and is now a subsidiary of Gibson Guitar) owns the name but little of the legacy.
A longer essay on the composers and their milieu, borrowed with permission from Harvard Musical Association’s program notes, is here.