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American pianist and composer best remembered for his Piano Concerto No 2, Woodland Sketches and Sea Pieces, exemplifies the need for all composers to have loyal interpreters. Very Good for an American was inspired by a symposium at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania. Bomberger, author of the MacDowell volume in the Master Musicians Series (OUP), notes how the melodist, over- familiar today for To a Wild Rose, was not always universally respected. In 1915, one critic alluded to MacDowell as a ‘sort of Mrs Grieg [who] will live as a poet of small pieces’. In 1929, another pen-pusher suggested that MacDowell ‘minces and simpers, maidenly and ruffled. He is nothing if not a daughter of the American Revolution’.

Now, piano lovers agree that MacDowell’s works are highly interesting and individualistic, not mere dainty bonbons. Bomberger dismisses published claims that MacDowell’s early mental decline was caused by syphilis. In an informative chapter, Laura Pita, an expert on the Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño (1853-1917), details how the latter was a valiant advocate for MacDowell’s music. Also a family friend, Carreño had coached the young MacDowell, at one point working with him daily for two months and offering ‘much stringent criticism which doubtless was beneficial’. Yet during Carreño’s brief, stormy marriage to the virtuoso Eugen d’Albert, the latter forbade her to perform MacDowell’s pieces, presumably as a matter of taste. Even after her divorce from d’Albert, Carreño was lukewarm about MacDowell’s later efforts, finding them ‘too laboured, less original’ than his First Suite or Second Concerto. MacDowell himself, in his later years of mental confusion, would refer to his mother as Teresita, the nickname of Carreño, as a sign of abiding friendship.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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