Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Chamber Music. Kelly Burke, clarinet, & John Fadial, violin, with Mary Ashley Barret, oboe, Lynn Huntzinger Beck, horn, Craig Brown, bass, Michael Burns, bassoon, Andrew Harley, piano, Janet Orenstein, violin, Scott Rawls, & Brooks Whitehouse, cello. Centaur CRC 2691 (©2004) (71:24) $16.00, available directly from Centaur.

Grove Music Online identifies Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) as an English composer. He was the illegitimate child of Daniel Hugh Taylor, a doctor and native of Sierra Leone, and Alice Hare Martin, an Englishwoman. After his father returned to Africa, he was raised by his mother in Croydon. It appears that the suggestion he may have enjoyed the support of a member of the Coleridge family is a myth. In 1890, he entered the Royal College of Music as a violin student. In 1891, he began to study composition with Charles Villiers Stanford, whose Brahmsian approach is reflected as a major strand of Coleridge-Taylor’s style. But his music also has a “rhythmic vitality, harmonic color and melodic invention (which betrays a strong modal character),” confirming a debt to his idol Dvorák. The mixed-race composer’s encounters with open and subtle racism led him to draw upon aspects of African culture as another strand of his art. Coleridge-Taylor was proud to be “an Englishman,” but he was deeply concerned about helping “to establish the dignity of the black man.”

Kelly Burke has put together another winning CD of too little-known music. She and her mostly University of North Carolina Greensboro-based colleagues assay some of Coleridge-Taylor’s best early chamber music.

The Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp minor, Op. 10 (1895), will appeal to lovers of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet. Although the idiom is Romantic, Coleridge-Taylor’s musical voice is as distinctive and individual as that of Dvorák or Brahms. Sophisticated connections between motives help link the work’s four movements. There’s an almost Dvorák-like folk quality to the first movement, with lively give-and-take between the clarinet and strings. The superb slow second movement seems to be a never-ending flow of melody from the clarinet, supported ably by the strings. The scherzo and the finale are both energetic and rhythmically interesting. Clarinetist Burke produces a mellow, warm sound as she spins seamless lines of melody. Her tonal palette is lustrous. Clarinet versus string balance is excellent, and the beautiful intonation and timbre have been perfectly captured.

The Four African Dances, Op.58 (1904), are pleasant solon pieces, tuneful, and only moderately demanding for the violin. Even though the score identifies the melody of the second dance as being based upon a traditional African tune, the listener would find it a challenge to differentiate from the rest. This is best enjoyed as a souvenir of the refined artistry of long-time Greensboro Symphony Concertmaster John Fadial. Pianist Andrew Harley is his fine accompanist, and the crystal-clear sound of his piano has been superbly recorded.

The first and only performance until recently of the Nonet in F minor, Op. 2, for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, double-bass, and piano, took place on a student concert at the Royal College of Music on July 5, 1894. Sir Charles Groves, creator of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, was in the audience. According to an anecdote by Coleridge-Taylor’s biographer W.C. Berwick Sayers, Grove approved of three of the four movements, saying the slow movement was “too florid and too quick,” and adding that the composer would never write a good slow movement “until he has been in love.” When the composer failed to appear after prolonged applause, “Groves brought the painfully shy student on stage from his hiding place in the organ room.”

William Thomas Walker