“Uncovered: Volume 2”
Florence B. Price: Quintet in A minor for Piano and Strings  – Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet  – String Quartet in A minor  – Five Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet  – String Quartet in G major (Unfinished)  – Quintet for Piano and Strings (Possibly Unfinished) 
Catalyst Quartet: Karla Donehew Perez, Abi Fayette (violin), Paul Laraia (viola), Karlos Rodriguez (cello); Michelle Cann (piano)
Recording: Attucks Theater, Norfolk, Virginia (April 16-18, 2021 ); Drew University, Madison, New Jersey (September 10-13, 2021 ) – 60’57
Azica Records ACD-71346 – Booklet in English
By now, the story of American composer Florence B. Price (1887-1953) is well known. An African-American woman of prodigious intelligence and talent, she faced bias both as a woman and person of color as she composed an impressive legacy of original music in the classical tradition, most of which has come to light only after her death. This year, the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin received a Grammy © for orchestral performance for its recording of two of her four symphonies.
But there is a body of chamber music that is only just now receiving its due. This is largely thanks to the efforts of the Catalyst Quartet which recently released “Uncovered, Volume 2: Florence B. Price”. This is the second in a series of albums highlighting string quartet works by major Black composers. Featured are Price’s six (known) string quartet and piano quintet works, including four World Premiere Recordings (WPR).
I can’t say enough good things about these chamber music gems. Each one is a delight, with a variety of moods, textures and compositional brilliance in a style that is both light and challenging, reflecting a unique perspective and a singular voice. At the heart of Price’s works is reverence for Black musical tradition as expressed through the Negro spiritual. Yet, these selections are not mere settings of familiar melodies, but fully developed works of beauty and complexity that seem to evolve out of the source material and take on a life of their own. Presenting these works are the gifted members of the Catalyst Quartet, with guest pianist Michelle Cann.
The Quintet in A minor of Piano and Strings opens with a bold attack and swells with yearning melodies unfolding along a path of well-designed intent. This initial movement is long (more than 13 minutes), but there is not a superfluous note or phrase in the mix. Price blends critical ideas with her profound knowledge of music theory and history. Dvorák is frequently mentioned as a composer Price is most akin to, and you can hear his shadow in the fourth movement of this Quintet, a steppingstone enroute to Price’s staircase to the stars. The gentle swing and bright hues that characterize this music create a singular European-American sound.
The album closes with a WPR of the Quintet for Piano and Strings (no key given, but it sounds like C major in the first movement and F major in the third). A cheery first movement leads to an andante with the leisurely allure of summer. No composer whom I know of can achieve the sense of personal peace that this composer expresses so eloquently in slow movements. The Quintet concludes with a kind of perpetual motion that never surrenders its good humor. Cann’s piano throughout both Quintets blends and intertwines familiarly with the Quartet players as though they played this music together every day, adding an element of percussive energy and lyrical charm.
Between the Quintets are Four Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet (WPR), String Quartet in A minor (WPR), Five Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet and String Quartet in G major (Unfinished) (WPR), a two-movement beauty with a sparkling little waltz that doesn’t feel unfinished in the least. Price’s understanding of counterpoint, the difficult process of pitching theme against theme, is impressive and results in beautiful fugue-like passages throughout the album, without ever growing tiresome or being content with repetition. It is worth noting that each composition ends in an imaginative and unexpected way. Her writing for the high strings is always varied and original, with leaping syncopations, pizzicato effects and free-style flutters. The lower strings are warm and redolent with memories of an age long gone but ever alive in the charm of these fresh and congenial expressions.
Many thanks to the Catalyst Quartet, pianist Cann and all the tireless advocates who have restored the place of Florence Price in music history for current and future generations.