Price Piano Music Guild Music GM2CD7828

Florence Price (1887-1953)
Piano Music
Kirsten Johnson (piano)
rec. 2021, Potton Hall, UK
Guild Music GM2CD7828 [2 CDs: 146]

Florence Price, born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, had a lifelong devotion to the piano. She made her first appearance aged four and at eleven she had her first compositions published, though her first published piano compositions date from the mid-1920s. The works are this disc are predominantly short character pieces and dances; it appears her only large scale piano works are the Sonata in E minor included here and the four Fantasie négre written at around the same time (these can be heard in Lorelt LNT144 review). Kirsten Johnson bases this recital around the Sonata and includes short works from her earliest published solos to the set of three Dances in the Canebrakes written in the year of her death.

Ticklin’ Toes opens the recital in ragtime style, short and not unlike Debussy’s Le petit nègre. The cakewalk and the closely related Juba dance find their way into several of these pieces; To a certain pair of Newlyweds, Silk Hat and Walking Cane, the third of the Dances in the Canebrakes, with its vaguely Slavic central section and Dance, the fourth piece from In the Land o’ Cotton. In these she is drawing on the musical traditions of the plantation slaves who were denied the use of percussion and so adapted the rhythmic body percussion of their African heritage. Bayou Dance is a more sophisticated example with hints of jazz, but this can also be heard in the blues inspired Cabin Capers andBilly Mayerl-like Jig Jog; I can hear echoes of Mayerl in several of these pieces, the third of the five Préludes for example, but this is probably more the novelty piano style that was so popular at the time. Other dance pieces include several waltzes ranging from the slow and elegant Rainbow waltz, Dark pool and Cherry Blossoms in her hair, a waltz originally intended as part of her At our house suite, to the more energetic Whirlwind waltz and Coquette, sprightly and with a more conversational central section. The wonderfully sentimental moods and descriptive writing bring another American composer to mind, Edward MacDowell, especially so in pieces like Song without words from the collection In the land o’ cotton or Dreaming at the Washtub from A Day in the life of a Washerwoman. The four pieces that make up this latter set seem to deal less with actual work activities and more about the moods of the day and thoughts that carry you through the drudgery. Morning’s opening chords are quite dramatic and powerful, not some gentle depiction of dawn breaking and even if the daydream is broken by darker thoughts they are very brief. It’s not all work as the jaunty a gay moment shows and Evening shade evokes both peaceful twilight and peaceful rest after the day’s toil. The sounds of work are recreated in the mechanical accompaniments found in the otherwise bubbly serenade At the Cotton Gin that opens the set In the land o’ cotton and the washing machine, the opening piece from At our house. This set continues with the delightful Practice Time that combines a comically harmonised Mozart C major Sonata with five note exercises – naturally complete with unintential accidentals – and a brief segue into the little tune you CAN play and would prefer to play. After all that hard practice it is only fair a reward is due, so Price’s nonchalant Tip-toe to the cookie jar is particularly apt. There are many more tranquil depictions here, none more so than the exquisite Song without words – pleading. Memory mist and Honeysuckle at dusk are two heartfelt pieces that both have interesting melodies at their heart, sounding native Indian in the former and a passionate spiritual in the latter, so it not surprising to discover that it is called Memories of the South in the manuscript.

The Sonata in E minor dates from 1932 and took first prize in the Rodman Wanamaker contest in musical composition for composers of the negro race; Price also received first prize in the symphonic category for her first symphony. It opens with a grand and noble choral introduction that leads to an allegro theme, march-like but markedly syncopated. The second theme is simple and lyrical, based on a short motif that repeats with slight melodic changes. In the development section Price works first on the opening theme, now more lyrical and in a major key, before moving to the second theme in various harmonic guises. When the second theme returns before the movements’s final virtuoso flourish, it is only briefly played in its original form before it goes through even more change. The andante’s rondo theme is a beautifully crafted melody that sounds like a spiritual. It is interspersed with two more spirited sections and if the second of these rises to impassioned heights it is the main theme that is the dramatic heart of the movement. The finale is a scherzo in the form of a tarantelle and as in the other movements there are some interesting turns of harmony including the grand whole tone arpeggios that precede the coda. There is a beautiful theme in the more tranquil second section that reminds me a little of Some enchanted evening and Price’s melodic gifts are apparent throughout this album.

I have enjoyed exploring these miniatures as well as getting to know the larger scale Sonata. Kirsten Johnson has a gift for the lyrical moments and finding the character of the smaller pieces. I am less taken with her playing of the outer movements of the Sonata, especially the finale which I find too slow and a little ponderous; compare with Karen Walwyn (available from her site Price piano works) or Samantha Ege (Lorelt LNT145) who plays at about the same speed but finds a lighter touch. On the whole though this is an entertaining and valuable collection exploring many facets of Price’s life at the piano and including many first recordings.

Rob Challinor

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Ticklin’ Toes
Dances in the Canebrakes
Five Preludes
To a certain pair of Newlyweds
A day in the life of a Washerwoman
Honeysuckle – A southern sky
Rainbow waltz
A Hillside
Dream Boat
In the Land o’ Cotton
Barcarolle (c.1929-1932)
At our House
The Goblin and the Mosquito
Cherry Blossoms in her hair
(debutante waltz) (1943)

Sonata in E minor (1932)
Placid Lake
Jig Jog
Honeysuckle at dusk
Song without words – pleading
Whirl Away Waltz
On a quiet lake
Song without words in A major
Dark pool
Bayou Dance
Memory Mist
Cabin Capers
On a Summer’s Eve