Karen Walwyn made history with her 2011 recording of the reconstructed version of Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement, and her recent recording of Price’s authentic orchestration promises to set the new gold standard for that work – but now Walwyn is back with an entirely different sort of Price album, one devoted entirely to works for piano solo. This new album presents some of Price’s familiar compositions along with others, found in an abandoned house south of Chicago in 2009, that have been only recently published and here receive their world-premiere recordings. Her lovingly nuanced and emotionally rich rendition of the well-known E-minor Piano Sonata (1931-32) is complemented by the world-premiere recording of the complete set of Five Preludes (1926), a work that Price gifted to her friend and collaborator Margaret Bonds; Walwyn gives eloquent voice to these preludes’ utterly delicious whimsy and wit as well as their melodic and harmonic craft. Performances of the suite In the Land o’ Cotton (which launched Price’s career as a professional composer by winning a prize in Opportunity magazine’s Holstein Competition in 1926) and the Arkansas Jitter (1938) are rounded out by beautiful renditions of the sprightly Joy in June and the deliciously evocative Child Asleep. It’s an album of considerable importance, and one to be treasured by all who celebrate the genius of Florence B. Price. – John Michael Cooper
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“I love hearing Price’s piano music.”
– Elaine Fine
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Karen (verified owner) –
PRICE Preludes for Piano. In the Land O’ Cotton Suite. Joy in June. Child Asleep. Arkansas Jitter. Piano Sonata in e • Karen Walwyn (pn) • KADORO KLASSICS 13285 77062 (59:14) I am delighted that the current political climate, and the emphasis in many quarters on social justice, has benefited the music of Florence Price, which now has a much better chance of entering the repertoire. Undoubtedly the fact that Price was Black and a woman has played a major role in the scarcity of performances of her work. Generally speaking, however, America has done a miserable job of keeping alive the music written by native composers in the last half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. How often have you encountered performances of music by Arthur Farwell, John Knowles Paine, Roy Harris, or Horatio Parker, to name only a few examples? The fact that Price’s music is getting more exposure makes it possible to form judgments about her talents. This fine disc of solo piano music is a case in point. The miniatures and larger works both demonstrate some obvious influences. Besides the major influence of Dvořák on the classical side, her style incorporated elements of jazz, blues, ragtime, indigenous African music, and spirituals. What makes her best music work, which applies to everything on this disc, is that Price was able to integrate these disparate elements personally—they do not sound like cobbled together pastiche. If we don’t hear undiscovered masterpieces, neither is anything worthy of neglect. The major work on the program is the Piano Sonata in E Minor from 1932. Price was a conservative composer in her time, and this piece is firmly rooted in the late 19th century. In addition to Dvořák there are echoes of Schumann and Rachmaninoff as well. But the unique flavor of the sonata comes from melding those influences into thematic material flavored with plantation songs and occasional jazz rhythms. The result sounds like Florence Price and nobody else. The three movements are well crafted and easily sustain interest through the sonata’s 30-minute length. The finale is a particularly invigorating romp that intermingles African-American dance rhythms with Romantic piano elements. The remaining works are largely short character pieces. Child Asleep is a singularly beautiful lullaby, while Joy in June is exactly the kind of celebratory dance the title would lead you to expect. The Six Preludes, which were composed between 1926 and 1932, recall the style of Scott Joplin. In the Land O’ Cotton Suite in four movement is by turns festive and elegiac. The two middle movements, “Dreaming” and “Song Without Words,” are particularly lovely as demonstrations of Price’s strong melodic gift. Karen Walwyn clearly believes in the music, and her performances seem excellent, although I have no basis for comparison. She marries propulsion and lyricism in just the right proportions. There is also expressive rubato and dynamic shading. The recorded sound is clear and warm. However, some production issues could have been improved. The individual movements or sections of larger pieces should have been tracked separately, and some of the spacing between tracks is too brief (only two seconds separate the final “stinger” of Arkansas Jitter and the dramatic opening chord of the sonata). There are very extensive and informative program notes available on the pianist’s website, karenwalwyn.com. That said, none of those reservations should prevent you from exploring this lovely collection.
Henry Fogel When did you first encounter the music of Florence Price, and what was its initial impact on you? I was engaged to play Price’s Concerto in One Movement in 2011, as the premiere concert performance of the reconstructed Trevor Weston orchestrated version, with the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble of Chicago conducted by Leslie Dunner. This was the first time the concerto had been performed since 1934, when it was performed by Price’s student, Margaret Bonds (now recognized as a wonderful composer as well), who played it with Ebba Sundstrom at the Ford Symphony Gardens at the Century of Progress Exhibition. The deputy director of the Center for Black Music Research, Mr. Morris Phibbs, invited me to perform the concerto, and it was a remarkable moment for me because I had been just slightly familiar with her music, and that was only because I had heard Ms. Althea Waits’s recording of the Sonata in E Minor. Now I had the opportunity to become intimately engaged with a score by Price. The performance was followed by the historic recording that was released on Albany Records. The initial experience of learning Price was something very different for me. I had recorded works that were written by African American composers, Dark Fires (Albany Records), but the composers were all living at the time of the recording and I had the opportunity to interview each one of them. It was wonderful to get to talk with them and to learn of their inspirations. I learned about their various experiences and paths as African Americans living in America, and sometimes abroad like Alvin Singleton, who spent over a decade in Austria. I learned about the messages that some had in their music as those related to the history of African Americans, such as from Adolphus Hailstork, who richly incorporated textures, harmonies, and rhythms from his African roots. I learned about passions in other works such as in the music of Jeffrey Mumford, with his love for nature, and in particular the beauty of clouds in the sky. I was able to learn their music with the guidance of what they shared with me. Florence Price was the first composer that I would learn a work of whose music I had not heard before, outside of the recording of the sonata by Waits. Price would be the first African American composer that I had not had the opportunity to speak with, as she had passed 58 years before the recording of this work. The one thing that was the common denominator for all of the works by the composers on Dark Fires, in addition to the fact that they were all American composers of African descent, was that most of the works were first-time recordings. I had to learn their music from scratch. With the works on Dark Fires I did, as stated earlier, have the opportunity to speak with the composers so that I might learn a little about their persons, their characters, their thoughts; and with what I learned, all was absorbed into the interpretation of the music that I would record. I was starting from ground zero with Florence Price on so many levels. I knew just a little of her history, really, only that she was the first African American female classical composer to gain national status—just that one sentence. When one thinks about how many thousands of recordings there are available of Beethoven symphonies, or of the Chopin preludes or the Brahms trios, if one begins to plan a concert of this very familiar music, it is mostly learned before even starting because we have heard this music. In my case, for each recital from Beethoven to Liszt to Rachmaninoff, I grew up listening to the repertoire. The matter of getting the music into my fingers is the next step, but the music and the expectations and performance practices were already known to me. We have grown up listening to the styles of the music, studying the history of the composers in school, learning about their nationalistic tendencies, historic challenges, personal lives, and the expected performance practices of the various works. I had nothing to guide me when I sat down at the piano, nothing to grab onto, when I played those first measures of the cadenza in the very beginning of the concerto. I felt quite naked! What does Florence Price ask for of the performance of her music? Who was she? What does her music say? Should we “swing” the rhythms that are clearly written in the style of Ragtime music like a jazz musician would do, or do we play it straight? Do we play the middle movement of the concerto as if we were in a church listening to our Southern grandmothers sing in the “kwy-uh”? (The Southern choir.) So many questions! There were no books for me to refer to on her biographical history, nor on the interpretations of her music, nor on the analysis of her music at this time, as we have for such composers as Beethoven, Liszt, or Chopin. It really is quite a humbling moment to walk blindly into a new work with no tools to utilize to help realize the message, style, character, or “feel” of the composer. Today, we are fortunate to have the first biography on Florence Price authored by Dr. Rae Linda Brown, entitled The Heart of a Woman. I felt a responsibility of executing the music as richly and accurately as I could imagine, for so many reasons. But most importantly and poignantly, I wanted to make sure that I honored her intentions as best as I understood them at the time: She was the very first American female composer of African descent to have gained national status, and this concerto, along with her First Symphony, would be performed in concert, and these works would be recorded for the first time ever. As I spent most of my educational years learning the repertoire of the usual composers of European descent, for me to play a work by a female African American composer almost felt like I was getting to know a great- great aunt that I didn’t know was a part of my family until just recently. I grew up listening to my grandmother sing in a choir in Cumberland, Virginia, and heard familiar styles of song in Price's writing. In striking contrast to that major 2011 concert event, in the 1933 concert with the premiere of Price’s symphony performed by the Chicago Symphony conducted by Frederick Stock, the programming included a work by John Powell, a composer from Richmond, Virginia who was very well known for his firm support of segregation and white supremacy. He had coined the phrase “one drop of blood, you are black,” as this phrase was used to help dominate blacks just after slavery was abolished. It is the ultimate insult on one hand, but at the same time Price did become an overnight national and international sensation. When I had the opportunity to walk onto the stage and perform this work, I didn’t realize what door had just opened, not just for Florence Price but for my own education about Florence Price. Her music is incredibly beautiful!! Symphony orchestras around the world are now playing her music. Chamber ensembles are performing her music and recording her music. Vocalists and choirs are programming her music. Looking back, while I knew it was a special moment then, it really was a truly historic one that humbles me every day.
It seems to me that Price was very successful at integrating various popular idioms into a classical format. How do you go about balancing those various elements when playing her music? Price’s music is rich with the use of many characteristics, rhythms, harmonies, and melodic suggestions of her heritage. One can hear the Juba in many of her last movements of works, from her symphonies to the Concerto in One Movement to the last movement of In the Land O’ Cotton Suite to a number of her smaller works. The Juba is a dance form that was brought to America by enslaved Africans. In Africa, the men and women would dance using percussion instruments for their rhythms, along with the snapping of fingers, clapping of hands, and clicking of tongues. They were dressed in very lively costumes with dynamic colors, and their energy was extraordinarily powerful. During the time of slavery, as there were no instruments allowed, their percussion was created not only by the clapping of hands and snapping of fingers but also by the slapping of their hands on their bodies. These syncopated rhythms are what is heard in a lot of Price’s music. With variations of these rhythms the Cakewalk dance would develop, which is also found in her writings, and the Jig as well, along with the emergence of Ragtime, which is also heard in her music. Price eloquently weaves these African- influenced styles into the European structures, whether it is inside of the sonata-allegro form, as in her Sonata in E Minor in the first movement, or into the Tarantella-like last movement of the sonata, or into the smaller structures of her Preludes. It is important to me to realize these characteristics in such a manner that they are not watered down, nor that they are over-exaggerated. Finding that fine line is a constant search. It is not just the rhythms that help identify her use of these idioms but the intervallic vocabulary that she chooses. Rachmaninoff uniquely uses the falling of the minor third as he comes to the ends of phrases, inducing a melancholy sentiment. Price uniquely uses the falling and rising minor third and the rising perfect fourth often, which is reminiscent of the spiritual, which was sung commonly on the plantations in suggestion of pain and hope. The sound of Price is her amazing blend of America.
Your “personal note” with the recording demonstrates just how seriously you took your responsibility to take up Price’s music. You visited her homeland in Little Rock and home in Chicago. How did those experiences, plus everything else you have learned from studying Price’s life and music, influence you? I did travel to the state of Arkansas in 2016 for the purpose of standing on the ground where Florence Price stood, to experience a touch of the culture of Little Rock, to see the neighborhoods where she lived, and to speak with folks that knew their history that isn’t fully represented in American history books. To most that I share this story with, it is a surprise to learn that I started my journey in Harrison, in Boone County, Arkansas. I visited Harrison because this city has a history of aggressive racism, having sustained two race riots about the time of Price’s young adult life (1905 and 1909), and to this day that city in particular is still fighting to reduce the fever of the KKK. I had the opportunity to speak with the city commissioner, Patty Methvin, and the mayor of Harrison, Dan Sherrell, where the population is 94 percent white, 1.10 percent Asian, and 0.69 percent Native American. It was amazing to learn of Methvin’s strength in how dedicated she is in trying to soften the boundaries that divide much of her county. Through my very positive visit with both of them, I found myself in conversation with an African American gentleman, the only one that I saw during my stay in Harrison. He warned me to be sure to get back to my hotel before nightfall because black men and women disappear. It was a chilling statement. I wanted to see what it felt like to experience the dynamic that would be the closest dynamic available for me today, to get a very small taste of the racial climate prevalent when Price was a young adult. Price was faced with a very similar warning. Shortly after the historic lynching of John Carter—which left this innocent African American man hanging, with over one hundred bullet holes in his body, on the traffic pole at the center of the black community in Little Rock in 1927, in front of the Mosaic Templars, the city’s African American cultural center—Price learned that there was a hunt for black daughters that would be kidnapped from the homes of well-established black families. Price took her two young daughters and fled to Chicago at night, with her husband, a lawyer, soon following, in hopes of finding a new home and freedom from the relentless horrors of that time in history. Studying the scores of Price’s works, I am forced to understand the history because so many of her works depict her heritage. For example, In the Land O’ Cotton Suite is obviously a depiction of the times of when slaves picked cotton. Price herself walked past a cotton field on her way to school as a young girl. “At the Cotton Gin” is the first of the four movements. The underlying figure, which is split between the two hands, suggests a rhythmic pattern similar to the churning of a huge mechanical machine, while there is a very beautiful and lilting melody above it. It is important, in my opinion, that pedaling be kept at a minimum so that an impression of the churning is realized. The Sonata in E Minor does not have titles that would suggest a “story,” however. I have had a number of opportunities to look through Price's music at the Library of Special Collections at the University of Arkansas, and I saw so many titles that were so very clearly depicting the life of her family and the culture of her heritage. I could not ignore the many suggestive melodic patterns that sound like a “mama” singing to her baby yearning for their freedom, or the strength and majestic writing in a theme of the first movement of the sonata that suggests to me Price’s having proudly displayed her heritage by not hiding who she was. When Florence Beatrice (Smith) Price was a young adult in 1911, her mother made a very hard decision. Florence Irene Smith’s husband, a thriving dentist, had died in 1910, penniless. Realizing that she had to surrender to the political hardships of the Jim Crow era, and that she would lose nearly everything that she had come to own, Mrs. Smith left Little Rock and returned to her home state, Illinois, to pass. Mrs. Smith slipped into white society and seemingly was never heard from by her daughter, Florence Beatrice, again. Florence Beatrice, in spite of her mother’s decision to pass, made sure to have her heritage be proudly audible in her works. I have to respect this pride, and I focused on treating many of the brilliant passages with distinction and dignity, along with her many contrasting tender and blissful moments that would, in my opinion, express a sense of hope.
One aspect of your playing on the Price disc that I particularly enjoyed was the singing quality you emphasized in much of her music. The piano is, after all, a percussive instrument—getting it to sing, getting a real legato from the keyboard, is not something that all pianists achieve with equal success. I have a feeling that is something that you concentrate on. Thank you very much for your comment and compliment. I was struck by the many very beautiful melodies of Price. The idea of her music singing is for me her sharing of an element that was very much a part of the African American tradition. When I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa to do research on Nelson Mandela, for a commission by Dr. Gerald Knight of Elon University for a choral work entitled Of Dance and Struggle, I learned about the tool that South Africans used that would ultimately lead to the release of Mandela. That tool was “song.” They didn’t use weapons; they marched in the streets singing protest songs to demonstrate their hope for the release of their leader, Nelson Mandela, who had fought for the end of apartheid. For two and half centuries after 1619, when the enslaved were first brought to plantations in America, they sang. They had no weapons. They sang just to get through the painful day of their very brutal routines; they sang to express the many daily challenges of the separation of family members by being sold at auctions; they sang in celebration of weddings and births, and for funerals, and they also sang to help send important messages to other slaves. Song was of vital importance. Price’s music is rich with “song.” It commanded me to strive to care for the melody that would carry her message. It was critically important to me to search for the meaning of the message(s). Each time that I perform Price, I continue to dig for more messages. Her “song” must be sung, and it is this that helps me to strive for as legato a sound as I can imagine.
You also bring a great deal of freedom to your playing of Price’s music—a very imaginative use of rubato. I would think that is an important part of approaching her music. Thank you for your note on rubato. The life of Florence Price is extraordinary. From her amazing childhood, living in a beautiful upper-class black family home where her parents hosted such guests as Frederick Douglass and John Boone, a noted traveling black pianist, Price was exposed to many and various cultural and historic climates during her short 66 years. From her beautiful childhood to the New England Conservatory, where she would graduate as the first student with a double major in both piano and organ, to her return to home life that had quickly changed to a very different climate with Jim Crow setting in, her music displays this suffrage. As a polished young adult traveling on the trains to Atlanta to teach at Clark Atlanta University, the sudden shift of treatment from one human to another in the South was sadly very demoralizing and dehumanizing, as blacks were labeled and treated not even as second-class citizens but something far worse. I hear this in her music. I hear the escape to Chicago with her husband and two children, only to face a very humiliating divorce, as times were just too tough for her husband to survive, having had to leave behind his law practice in Little Rock. I hear her fight for survival in her music. In her ultimate first prize wins for both the Symphony in E Minor and the Sonata in E Minor in 1932 in the Rodman Wanamaker Competition, which was a composition competition for African American composers that was established in 1927, I hear the tears of joy, strength, and independence in her music. Price’s story yearns to be told. The use of rubato allows for me to find room to express the numerous factors of her life.
The Piano Sonata in E Minor is one of Price’s most extended pieces–a full half hour in three traditional movements. Others have spoken of the influence of Dvořák on Price, particularly in this work, but I also think I hear the influence of Schumann and a whiff of Rachmaninoff. At the same time, it is also clearly influenced by what Michael Cooper, in his notes for your CD, calls Afro-Romantic idioms. It is, though, much more than a stringing together of tunes and imitative episodes. Could you speak about the merits of the sonata, which became more apparent to me every time I listened to it? I have often been touched by these “sightings” of Schumann and Rachmaninoff, and of Schubert and Chopin as well. This work took some years for me to absorb. The textures inside of the first movement continuously shift from one color to another within just a few beats, and the more intimately I listen the more I can hear the many statements that are simultaneously interwoven. At first glance, one may put the pedal down and one might hear a rush of E-Minor sonorities and closely related harmonies. However, as I really started to pull the sections apart from one another, I started to hear the nuances of each phrase and how the contour of one phrase would make all of the difference in the world. Without the historical background of Florence Price, one may not know to look for the contour of her phrasing. It is kind of like listening to a phrase as simple as “I had a good day today.” Depending on where you may be from, whether it is the northeastern region of the United States, or the southern region, the midwestern region, or the western coast, this statement would be spoken very differently. With that background, a word may be emphasized differently, the syllables may be pronounced very differently, resulting in a sentiment fluctuating from one person to the next. In many of the seemingly busy passages of the first movement, I hear a continuous spinning out of a story with many surprising turns. Where it may seem to lather in a new tonal area or idea, taking more time than the typical B theme of a sonata-allegro form may last, I feel transported to a place where there may be a conversation with not only “I had a good day today,” but within some segments of the African American community you might also hear a follow-up of “I sure did have a good day, yes, Lawd,” or “It was a gooood day indeed, thank you Jesus,” or “Ummm- hmmmmm,” as I used to heard my Great-Aunt Mammie say so often. With Price’s Schumannesque lines that wrap this “healing” quality of the Black essence into the contrasting European structure, her language is prominently spoken. The drama that I hear in the development section reminds me of the Chopin Sonata in B♭ Minor in its development section as it sweeps through similar turmoil culminating at the powerful return of the A theme in the recapitulation. For me, what is so captivating about Price’s writing, with the loss of her mother, as well a brother who also is suspected of having slipped into white society, her identity speaks volumes, never losing sight of the characteristics that remind us of who she is. As a young child, her mother did try to have Florence Beatrice hide her identity by having her sign her programs at New England Conservatory with an address in Puebla, Mexico for her safety, wishing for Florence to pass as Hispanic or other. However, Price would not hide her identity in her music. I realize that I have said this phrase often. It is important to consider that in her time, being Black in the wrong place at the wrong time meant certain death. Her music speaks with strength written with a poignantly poetic hand. I can only respond that I aim to find and reveal as much of her story as I can imagine. Her music speaks of her history, an African American history, and an American history.
If one goes back in history prior to the end of the 19th century, virtually all composers were also performers. That mostly changed in the 20th century. You are in some ways a throwback, because you are both a performing pianist and a composer. How does your composing influence or affect your performing, and vice versa? Do you think it is a benefit for both disciplines for an artist to have both skills? I must admit that while I am often challenged with the completion of a commission versus preparation for an upcoming recital, I find that with both, one feeds off of the other. When I am composing, I am exercising that part of my brain that tickles the imagination. That did not happen when I was practicing and had not yet started composing back some years ago. When I approach a work by another composer, now that part of my brain engages, and I find myself thinking about why the composer may have treated a phrase in this manner or gone in that direction, and I start to respond as if I were writing it myself in search of that phrase at every possible turn or “feeling” engaged by the composer. An audience member recently told me that she felt like I was composing at the piano, when I was playing what happened to be an all-Price concert. I don’t know when I started doing that, and I can’t tell you that I was “trying” to do that. It kind of happened unconsciously. And, as a pianist who composes, I am usually writing in response to an event, like my work devoted to 9/11, Reflections on 9/11 (Albany Records), or a more recent work which has not yet been published, Mother Emanuel Suite, a five-movement work that expresses the horrific tragedy in Charleston in 2015. I tend to write in a manner that must tell the story, no matter how it can be played technically. (Sometimes, I must admit I do have feedback that will require some adjustments!) When I am writing, I am not consciously aware of myself as a pianist. I am no longer aware of a division.
What kinds of projects might we look forward to from you in the future? I am looking forward to recording at least three more albums of music by Price, and in the meantime I have a number of commissions that I must complete, and in some cases begin. In the next year, I have a work for cello and piano that was commissioned by cellist Eric Kutz from the University of Maryland, which will be performed by him and his wife, pianist Miko Kominami. In the immediate future I am completing a work for French horn and piano commissioned by Debra Sherrill. I want to also publish my Charleston work, and on the stove, so to say, the back burner, way in the back … I look forward to composing my first piano concerto! Thank you for your questions. I have appreciated the opportunity to share my thoughts on Florence Price, her history, her legacy, and also on my work as a pianist and composer. I am humbled to receive your questions and do hope that my notes are helpful, not just to the Price admirer but to the general public, as she was a remarkable woman. The finding of her music in her abandoned summer home in Kankakee County in 2009 was a day from heaven. There is much work still to do in the recuperation of many scores currently at Special Collections at the University of Arkansas, a place I call home.
Linda S (verified owner) –
Magnificent music composed by Florence Price performed by Dr. Karen Walwyn
This album is absolutely stunning. I particularly love the last piece – the Sonata which is about 30 minutes long—such a tremendous and beautiful piece. And I enjoy the shorter pieces which are bright and evocative. I sometimes listen to this album when I color—which is very meditative and the music makes a lovely background. I have listened to this music a number of times and never tire of it. Dr. Karen Walwyn is a master at phrasing and beautiful dynamics and the light happy touch needed for some pieces and the strong drama needed for others. I heard her in concert about four years ago when I was first introduced to the music of Florence Price. I love the work of both Price and Walwyn. Karen Walwyn has done us all a service by introducing us to this magnificent composer who has been unrecognized for so long.
Peter J Rabinowitz, Fanfare (verified owner) –
A major addition to the Price discography
Josh Tatsuo Cullen’s highly praised Price CD on Blue Griffin was reviewed by James H. North in Fanfare 46:2; here’s a new recording from devoted Price advocate Karen Walwyn, one that was actually released earlier and that complements it neatly. The two collections have only one work (the Preludes) in common, and the performances are so different that you won’t mind the repetition. To simplify: Cullen—faster in tempo, sharper in profile, and more impulsive in his handling of the music’s changes in stylistic landscape—plays up Price’s Modernist side. Walwyn—more patient, more attentive to Price’s sweet lyricism, and less abrupt—highlights Price’s debt to Romanticism (Dvořák, of course, in particular). Both approaches work well.
In stressing Walwyn’s Romanticism, I don’t want to suggest, for instance, that she softens the rhythmic kick of Arkansas Jitter or that she pulls back from the virtuosity in the culmination of the sonata’s finale: These performances have no shortage of brilliance. Nor, more important, do I want to suggest that she smooths over the music’s harmonic quirkiness, whether in its surprising chords or its unexpected modulations (and there are many of them). Still, I suspect that most listeners will remember this disc primarily for such qualities as the mournfulness of the third movement of Land O’ Cotton, the carefully modulated sentiment of Child Asleep, or, even more, the luminous, bittersweet beauty of the middle movement of the sonata, steeped in (but not limited by) the idiom of Black spirituals.
It’s not simply that Walwyn highlights these beauties; she also subtly heightens them. It’s hardly necessary these days to point out that Price melds a number of musical traditions: folk traditions (especially those originating in Black communities), pop music traditions (she could well have had a Broadway career), and the traditions of Western classical music. And throughout the disc, but especially in the more reflective passages, Walwyn has an uncanny ability to balance these disparate sources, not only with a profound sense of their differing musical content and syntax, but also with a profound sense of their emotional and historical resonances. Those resonances are key. It’s often said (especially, but not exclusively by her detractors) that Price “sounds like” Gershwin or Dvořák. There’s some superficial truth there, but when played with an understanding of the music’s cultural implications, Price has a distinct voice of her own. Walwyn—like Cullen, Michelle Cann, Rachel Barton Pine, and John Jeter—certainly has that understanding.
In sum, this is a fine addition to the catalog. If you already know Price, you won’t need my urging to snap it up; if you’ve not yet made her acquaintance this is a good place to start, especially since it offers a chance to sample both her miniatures and one of her most substantial pieces, the half-hour sonata. I do wish there were better annotations. The comments in the booklet, while tantalizing, are far too brief; the analyses on Walwyn’s website (nowhere mentioned in the CD booklet) are extremely detailed, but they sometimes lose the forest for the trees. Then, too, while the engineering is generally good, the decision to put each of the multimovement works on a single track—and to reduce the time between the tracks to nearly nothing—was a miscalculation. These are minor problems, though, on a major disc.
Henry Fogel (verified owner) –
Lovely performances of fine piano works by Florence Price
I am delighted that the current political climate, and the emphasis in many quarters on social justice, has benefited the music of Florence Price, which now has a much better chance of entering the repertoire. Undoubtedly the fact that Price was Black and a woman has played a major role in the scarcity of performances of her work. Generally speaking, however, America has done a miserable job of keeping alive the music written by native composers in the last half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. How often have you encountered performances of music by Arthur Farwell, John Knowles Paine, Roy Harris, or Horatio Parker, to name only a few examples?
The fact that Price’s music is getting more exposure makes it possible to form judgments about her talents. This fine disc of solo piano music is a case in point. The miniatures and larger works both demonstrate some obvious influences. Besides the major influence of Dvořák on the classical side, her style incorporated elements of jazz, blues, ragtime, indigenous African music, and spirituals. What makes her best music work, which applies to everything on this disc, is that Price was able to integrate these disparate elements personally—they do not sound like cobbled together pastiche. If we don’t hear undiscovered masterpieces, neither is anything worthy of neglect.
The major work on the program is the Piano Sonata in E Minor from 1932. Price was a conservative composer in her time, and this piece is firmly rooted in the late 19th century. In addition to Dvořák there are echoes of Schumann and Rachmaninoff as well. But the unique flavor of the sonata comes from melding those influences into thematic material flavored with plantation songs and occasional jazz rhythms. The result sounds like Florence Price and nobody else. The three movements are well crafted and easily sustain interest through the sonata’s 30-minute length. The finale is a particularly invigorating romp that intermingles African-American dance rhythms with Romantic piano elements.
The remaining works are largely short character pieces. Child Asleep is a singularly beautiful lullaby, while Joy in June is exactly the kind of celebratory dance the title would lead you to expect. The Six Preludes, which were composed between 1926 and 1932, recall the style of Scott Joplin. In the Land O’ Cotton Suite in four movement is by turns festive and elegiac. The two middle movements, “Dreaming” and “Song Without Words,” are particularly lovely as demonstrations of Price’s strong melodic gift.
Karen Walwyn clearly believes in the music, and her performances seem excellent, although I have no basis for comparison. She marries propulsion and lyricism in just the right proportions. There is also expressive rubato and dynamic shading. The recorded sound is clear and warm. However, some production issues could have been improved. The individual movements or sections of larger pieces should have been tracked separately, and some of the spacing between tracks is too brief (only two seconds separate the final “stinger” of Arkansas Jitter and the dramatic opening chord of the sonata). There are very extensive and informative program notes available on the pianist’s website.
That said, none of those reservations should prevent you from exploring this lovely collection. Henry Fogel
Ken Meltzer (verified owner) –
Compelling performances of solo piano music by Florence B. Price
In recent years, the music of American composer Florence P. Price (1887-1953) has undergone a significant renaissance. This includes a 2022 Grammy “Best Orchestral Performance” awarded to the DGG recording of Price’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3, with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The story of Price’s life and career, as well as the recent rediscovery of her music, has been outlined by several of my Fanfare colleagues (I include my own summary in a review of an ACA recording of Price Organ Music, Fanfare 45:6, July/Aug 2022). Florence B. Price was the first African American female composer to have a work performed by a major US Orchestra (Symphony in E minor, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Stock, 1933). In addition to her gifts as a composer, Price was an accomplished pianist, organist, and educator. The return of her music to the concert stage and recordings is a long overdue and welcome development. A new album devoted to Price’s solo piano music features performances by Karen Walwyn. Dr. Walwyn, Area Coordinator of Keyboard Studies at Howard University, is one of the foremost advocates of the music of Florence B. Price. Karen Walwyn was the soloist in the 2011 world premiere recording of Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement (Albany Records 1295), reviewed for Fanfare by Lynn René Bayley (35:5, May/June 2012). And Walwyn frequently performs Florence Price’s music in concert.
The works contained on this recording (issued on Walwyn’s Kadoro Klassics label) demonstrate the many attractive qualities of Price’s compositions. Florence B. Price embraced a wide variety of influences in her works, including American folk music, ragtime, jazz, and European classics. The opening five Preludes for Piano are illustrative. The first three are very much in the Gershwin mold, while the fourth could pass for one of Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances (Dvořák seems to have been profound influence on Price and her compositions). The fifth and final Prelude evokes the spirit of Robert Schumann, with its combination of restless yearning, lyricism, and poetry. The Suite In the Land O’ Cotton, in four movements, resides primarily in the folk genre, as do the three brief character pieces that follow; Joy in June, Child Asleep, and Arkansas Jitter. The concluding Sonata in E minor, the major work on this recording, is in three movements. Here, Price returns to a more eclectic, all-embracing voice, combining popular and classical elements. The music is also couched in writing of a more virtuoso nature, with many episodes of brilliant passagework and rich sonority. It’s a bracing and compelling achievement, even if the dance-inspired concluding scherzo overstays its welcome for me.
Karen Walwyn plays all of the music with the utmost commitment, flair, and technical mastery. Her devotion to Price’s music is clear in each and every bar. And her performances are captured in excellent sound. A few minor quibbles about the production of the recording. The two multi-movement works are each accorded but a single track. In addition, the runoff time between each complete work is far too brief. I also wish that Dr. Michael Cooper would have provided a bit more in-depth musical analysis to his otherwise informative and eloquent liner notes. But in the end, it is the music that counts. And thanks to Karen Walwyn, the works of Florence Price here shine with distinction. Recommended.
James Harrington (verified owner) –
Wonderful American music that is not well-known gets great performances here.
Florence Beatrice Price (1887–1953) composed over 450 pieces and was recognized as a composer, teacher, and performer during her lifetime. Her training was solid and thoroughly in the European style, and her Deep South roots are evident all through her oeuvre. Her music, despite its quality, did not find a place in the standard repertoire. Much of it remained unknown and unpublished. In 2009, a large collection of her manuscripts and other papers were discovered in an abandoned house in St. Anne, IL, about 60 miles south of Chicago. The current research in the musical world towards discovering unjustly neglected African-American and female composers has begun to bring Price the attention she deserves.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra opened Carnegie Hall’s season last year with Price’s Symphony No. 1 and will perform her Symphony No. 3 this year. Their recording of the two big pieces recently received a Grammy Award. Releases like the current one from Karen Walwyn continue to give us more and more of Price’s superb music. Dr. Walwyn is the area coordinator of keyboard studies at Howard University and has a number of highly praised recordings. She is considered a champion of Florence Price and played the premiere performance of the composer’s Piano Concerto in One Movement. This recording features the world premiere of the complete Five Preludes from 1926. The other big works are the four-movement In the Land O’Cotton Suite (also 1926), the big three-movement Piano Sonata (1932) and three little short, wonderful pieces: Joy in June, Child Asleep, and Arkansas Jitter.
There is not a piece on the program that I haven’t enjoyed multiple times. I will track down the music to a few and learn them. Schirmer announced that it acquired the worldwide publishing rights to Florence Price’s catalog back in 2018. Walwyn has been an inspiration. Whether pieces influenced by Gershwin and jazz, or those inspired by spirituals, her playing captures the essence of Price’s inventive writing with personality, sensitivity, and flair. There are many rhythmic and harmonic strengths here, not the least, those patterns which we may anticipate, but Price varies surprisingly. Walwyn makes the most of those spots.
This recording has excellent piano sound and informative essays by both Michael Cooper and the pianist herself. I wish the disc had tracks for all of the pieces and timings for each printed in the booklet as well. The Preludes are just one track, as is the In the Land O’Cotton Suite, likewise for the sonata. That is really my only negative criticism here. This is a marvelous release and one that I’ll keep on my active listening stack for some time to come.
Michael Cooper (verified owner) –
AN INDISPENSIBLE ALBUM
Dr. Karen Walwyn, who made history in 2011 with the world-premiere recording of Florence B. Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement, has given us another milestone in the modern Florence Price movement. This new album includes some works that have long been available (such as the “In the Land o’ Cotton Suite” and the Piano Sonata), intermingled with others that were found among thousands of pages of manuscripts in an abandoned house in St. Anne, Illinois, in 2009 (many of these recently published by G. Schirmer, which in 2018 acquired the exclusive international rights to Price’s complete catalog). Price’s wide-ranging and unstoppable musical imagination is beautifully displayed — as are Dr. Walwyn’s wonderfully nuanced technique and sensitive, thoughtful interpretive skills.
One of the album’s many important features is that it offers the first complete recording of Florence Price’s Five Preludes for Piano (1926-32). Nos. 2, 3, and 4 of this set were recorded with misidentifying titles (“untitled sketches”) by Dr. Samantha Ege in 2021, but those works are part of a coherent set — one that was sufficiently important to Price for her to write out a separate (and beautiful) manuscript and gift this to her friend, collaborator, and former student Margaret Bonds (1913-72), who may have performed the works but in any case kept the manuscript to the end of her life. The Preludes are also significant as Price’s only set of “absolute” works for piano solo (all the rest of her piano suites are descriptive or programmatic in nature). Walwyn’s inclusion of them here as a coherent set that contributes to the same genre that fascinated Romantic and post-Romantic composers from Alkan through Chopin, Debussy, and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel to Rachmaninoff is to be commended.