September 2007

American Virtuosa - Tribute to Maud Powell
Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Matthew Hagle, piano
Cedille CDR 90000 097
Format: CD
Released: 2007

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Maud Powell (1867-1920), the first important American violinist, was a phenomenon of her time: an early champion of the Sibelius Concerto, which she introduced to America -- as she did also the concertos of Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. Numerous composers wrote pieces for her and/or made special arrangements of existing ones for her, and she enriched the repertory further with arrangements of her own.

But Powell died before electrical recording came into being, and by the middle of the last century, she had been largely forgotten. Some two decades ago, however, Karen A. Shaffer brought out a definitive biography, created the Maud Powell Foundation for Music and Education, and issued Ward Marston’s remarkable CD transfers of all of Powell’s pre-electrical recordings (subsequently given wider circulation on the Naxos label). In 1995 she sent the biography to Rachel Barton Pine, who had never heard of Maud Powell, but was moved to do her own part in restoring Powell’s place of honor among America musicians.

This lovely hommage -- 21 tracks on the CD, an additional piece available to download -- is a stunning consequence of Ms. Pine’s motivation. Powell composed no original music; assembled here are pieces dedicated to her by such contemporaries as Henry Holden Huss, Herman Bellstedt, Jr., Harry Gilbert, Cecil Burleigh, Marion Bauer, Max Liebling, Amy Beach and Carl Venth, and Powell’s arrangements of music by Sibelius, Dvorak, Chopin, Massenet and others. All the material reflects to some degree the sort of musician Powell was, and no one seems to have performed it since she herself did.

This generous recording might stand on its own merit, as a beautifully played and vibrantly recorded collection of mostly unfamiliar music, but it is substantially enhanced by Ms. Pine’s introduction, and still more by Karen Shaffer’s extended notes, with enlightening background on every piece. This is an elegant production in every respect.