One of the revolutions set in progress by last year’s Black Lives Matter protests has been the refocusing of the classical music industry’s attention of composers of colour, many of them historical figures formerly the preserve of the curious collector and rarely programmed live.
New York-based Catalyst Quartet was founded in 2010 by the Sphinx Organization, an outstanding Detroit-based social justice organisation dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts. The ensemble (Karla Donehew Perez, violin; Abi Fayette, violin; Paul Laraia, viola; and Karlos Rodriguez, cello) build programs and projects accordingly and this excellent release of music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is the first in a projected series of “Uncovered” CDs focussing on composers overlooked because of race and/or gender (others releases will include music by Joseph Boulogne Chevalier de Saint-Georges, William Grant Still, Florence B. Price, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, and George Walker).
Born in London in 1875, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was mixed-race, his mother being White British and his father a Black doctor from Sierra Leone. A student and admirer of Stanford at the Royal College of Music, Coleridge-Taylor was also a fan of Brahms and Dvořák. All three doubtless influenced the early works on this disc, though the composer’s special brand of songful lyricism that ten years later would inform his greatest hit Hiawatha is already in evidence here in a voice that is all his own.
The earliest work comes from 1893, the 18-year-old composer’s Piano Quintet. It’s a youthful work, full of spirit, with a wistful yearning in its poetical Larghetto and a good-hearted optimism about its whirling Scherzo and Finale. Coleridge-Taylor divvies up the honours neatly between the piano and string players, giving each his or her moment in the sun. The Catalyst Quartet makes the most of such opportunities, as does the impressively poetical Stewart Goodyear on piano, but they are also capable of a rich blend, most naturally caught by the Azica engineers.
The Clarinet Quintet hails from two years later and, if anything, is an even finer work. Anthony McGill – Principal Clarinet with the New York Phil and the orchestra’s first Black principal – is the alluring soloist here, his burnished, singing tone especially affecting in the ravishing Larghetto affettuoso. Again, there’s a palpable synergy between quartet and soloist in a tight yet generous performance full of character and panache.
In between the quintets come the Five Fantasiestücke, written the same year as the Clarinet Quintet but published posthumously. A catchy, tuneful suite, it’s comprised of a soulful Prelude and lilting Serenade, a racy, Dvořákian Humoresque, a misty-eyed Minuet, and concludes with a skirling Dance, all despatched with great aplomb.
These performances yield nothing to the Nash Ensemble who recorded fine versions of both quintets for Hyperion back in 2007. If anything, the new recording feels even more immediate.
A three-time visitor to the US, Coleridge-Taylor engaged with the ideas of Black American writers and thinkers of his day, even sitting down on one occasion at the White House with Teddy Roosevelt. “No one realises more than I that the coloured people have not yet taken their place in the scheme of things, but to say that they never will is arrogant rubbish, and an insult to the God in Whom they profess to believe,” he wrote in 1912. To judge by these appealing works, his death from pneumonia at the age of 37 robbed the world of an individual voice and a true musical ambassador.
Works: Piano Quintet, Fantasiestücke, Clarinet Quintet
Performers: Stewart Goodyear p, Anthony McGill cl, Catalyst Quartet
Label: Azica Records AZICA71336
Read our interview with clarinettist Anthony McGill here