Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Fantasie Nègre: The piano music of Florence Price @ Milton Court, London

24 November 2021

Glorious piano music from three lesser known 20th century composers at Milton Court.

Milton Court

Milton Court (Photo: Em Davis)

The early/mid 20th century was an interesting period in musical history. Serialism, Atonalism, Polytonalism and other Modernist movements had made their presence felt in the concert halls, the jazz age was flourishing, and recordings of ‘popular music’ were on the rise. It was, consequently, also an age of musical fusion, and jazz, particularly, became a form that influenced composers such as Ravel, Gershwin, Stravinsky and Copland. Florence Price and Margaret Bonds were African American composers based, in the middle of this period, in 1930s Chicago, and who fused their classical compositional training with their cultural heritage of Spirituals and jazz for the music they wrote and performed.

Price’s four Fantasies Nègres are gorgeous piano fantasies; harmonically, they are combinations of 19th century piano writing and jazz tropes, but lyrically, they draw on the yearning, minor key melodies of the Spirituals of slavery (albeit that only the E minor first Fantasie deploys a named Spiritual: ‘Sinner, please don’t let this harvest pass’). Wednesday’s concert by pianist and Price scholar Samantha Ege presented all four of these works in deftly executed performances that brought out their characters to the full: considerable deployment of rubato to the arpeggio shrouded melodies; plaintive, lyrical passages; grand keyboard leaps; and busy little tunes. The most enjoyable was the final piece (Fantasie No. 2) whose quiet, opening figure developed into the prettiest of melodies, which was then given treatments from pastoral naïveté through rolling grandeur to an edgy, ragtime influenced iteration.

“Price’s four Fantasies Nègres are gorgeous piano fantasies…”

Margaret Bonds, as well as performing Price’s works for solo piano, also wrote a few of her own; her three movement Spiritual Suite was published in its entirety only last year, and to hear a full performance was a long delayed treat. Like Price’s piano music, Bonds’ Suite is heavily influenced by jazz and carries Spiritual lyricism, but its classical elements feel more 20th century, and it has touches of works by Les Six about it. The opening movement (‘The Valley of the Bones’) opened with low chords and a twisty melody that moved into more ‘out there’ jazz borrowings: ostinato rhythms and a final boogie-woogie. The second movement (‘The Bells’) was full of pentatonic tinkling and blue notes, and the third (‘Troubled Water’) deployed a tango-like rhythmic pattern concluding with a lush iteration of a Spiritual over rhythmic pianistic drumming.

Ege also gave the Czech composer Vítězslava Kaprálová’s 1933 Sonata Appassionata its belated UK premiere. Like the works of Price and Bonds, there is a lushness to the writing in this work that pulls in the 20th century musical language of composers such as Ravel, but yet remains rooted in 19th century grandiloquence. The Maestoso marking of the first movement came through in its restless moodiness, splashy chords and relentless counterpoint, and one might almost have conjectured a sea themed intention. The second movement – ‘Theme and variations’ – took a pretty, almost saccharine, theme through lush statements, agitated frenzy, sad, ‘after the ball is over’ wistfulness and a complex, edgy fugue to great effect.

Ege is an accomplished performer, and her understanding of tempo, dynamic and style is consummate. All of the works were delivered to bring out their character with a fiercely intelligent, crisp efficiency. What was needed, though, was more platform presence. There is such a huge emotional pull to these works, and one of the added values of a live performance over a recording is to see and feel such emotion communicated by the performer, and, sadly, this was largely missing. Ege, though, is the world expert on Price’s piano music, and her recordings of it are highly recommended.

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Fantasie Nègre: The piano music of Florence Price @ Milton Court, London