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Michelle Cann shines a light with 'Revival: Music of Price & Bonds'

courtesy of the artist

Philadelphia’s own Michelle Cann is one of the world’s most prominent performers of Florence Price’s piano music, and by far the go-to pianist for performances of Price’s Concerto in One Movement. Last year she released two albums featuring Price’s music, one of which won a Grammy award. Revival: Music of Price & Bonds gathers some of Price’s solo piano music alongside the recently published completion of a work by Margaret Bonds, one of Price’s star students. It’s an all-Philly affair: Cann is the Eleanor Sokoloff Chair in Piano Studies at the Curtis Institute of Music, and this is the second release on its new label, Curtis Studio.

The recording is a worthy addition to the discography of each piece programmed. Since Price and Bonds both encountered the hurdles associated with being Black women in a white and male-dominated field, we still celebrate world premieres of theirs every now and then. There are still pieces being reassembled from the 2009 discovery of Price’s lost works, and Bonds’ Spiritual Suite, heard on this record, was only published in full this decade. Each piece here, even the recently discovered and published ones, has been recorded before, so this is an acknowledgment and endorsement of their place in the repertoire, and more recordings are sure to follow.

The music’s greatness speaks for itself, but Cann is a big help with her wonderful performances. She starts off with Price’s Piano Sonata in E minor, a piece that won accolades when it premiered in 1932. Opening with a fanfare, it shifts into variations on a theme, in a tonal palette that suggests the core influence of spirituals. The second movement is achingly beautiful (as acknowledged by both Cann and my office-mate when I realized I wasn’t listening with the headphones I thought I’d plugged in), and the third playfully dances towards its conclusion at varying degrees of intensity.

Price’s Fantasie Nègre No. 1 gained its number when several subsequent pieces (Nos. 2 through 4) were discovered in 2009. Cann skips No. 3 on this album (check out Samantha Ege’s recording if you’d like to hear it), but there’s still plenty here to enjoy. The Fantasies are more adventurous than the sonata, in line with how earlier composers would use single-movement forms to separate further from form itself. Cann takes the opportunity to show off her range of expression in earnest. The first is the only one that uses the theme of an existing spiritual, while No. 2 plays around further with its variation. No. 4 could’ve been the result of Clara Wieck Schumann playing in a jazz band.

The final, much shorter set comprises Margaret Bonds’ Spiritual Suite: three fantasies on traditional spirituals that, while they deviate from the source material significantly, Cann’s performances will have you wanting to sing along. The known commodity from this group is “Troubled Water,” a brilliant take on Wade in the Water that is Bonds’ most recorded work by far. Preceding it are “Valley of the Bones,” which is based more on Bonds’ own somber arrangement of Dry Bones than the better-known version (though hers certainly livens up as it moves along); and “The Bells,” based on Peter, Go Ring Dem Bells.

Cann has said that it’s important these composers have a voice in our time, and in that sense, great interpreters who share that mission have a crucial role to play. It doesn’t end there, though: not all recordings are engineered as this one has been, to so clearly bring across Cann’s ability to exude power through even her lightest touch. I’m glad to see Curtis behind this album, as a leading institution and therefore a key endorsement of a recording like this, because it falls to the gatekeepers — us, too — to ensure that this long-neglected music gains its deserved entry to the repertoire. That will be helped by great recordings such as this one, where everyone involved has bought in.

Revival: Music of Price & Bonds is available now from Curtis Studios.

John T.K. Scherch (JohnTK@wrti.org) shares the morning’s musical and other offerings weekdays on WRTI 90.1. Previously, he was the first new host on WBJC in Baltimore in nearly 20 years, hosting the evening, Sunday afternoon, and request programs, and he is also an alumnus of U92, the college radio station of West Virginia University and a consecutive national Station of the Year winner.