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Henry COWELL (1897-1965)
Instrumental, Chamber and Vocal Music - Vol. 1

Piano Pieces [15:07]
Quartet for flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord [10:51]
Three Anti-Modernist Songs [6:55]
Suite for violin and piano [11:03]
Polyphonica for small orchestra (1930) [3:48]
Irish Suite for string piano and small orchestra (1925) [16:39]
Continuum/Cheryl Seltzer; Joel Sachs
rec. American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York City, Apr 1990. DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559192 [65:46]

Henry COWELL (1897-1965)
Instrumental, Chamber and Vocal Music - Vol. 2

Homage to Iran (1957) [14:50]
Piece for piano with strings (1924) [3:34]
Vestiges [6:55]
Euphoria (1929) [0:59]
What's This (1915) [0:35]
Elegie (1941) [5:16]
The Banshee (1925) [2:05]
Two Songs - Poems of Catherine Riegger [4:23]
Six Casual Developments (1933) [5:16]
Set of Five (1952) [16:32]
Continuum/Cheryl Seltzer; Joel Sachs
rec. Cooper Union, New York City, 1984; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York City, 1992. DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559193 [59:44]


Cowell and Ornstein were contemporaries. During the 1910s and 1920s they were the American wildmen of the times. Their music assaulted the ear and pushed out the boundaries. Ornstein slipped out of history into dusty neglect while Cowell became a cause célèbre not so much because of his music but because of his imprisonment on a 'morals' charge. The specifics of the charge hardly matter now. In any event he was imprisoned in San Quentin for four years and pardoned in 1941.

His music has made a gradual emergence from the chrysalis and these two CDs are an important, surprising and often pleasurable new chapter in the butterfly process. Let’s hope that the music will enjoy a sustained life in an increasingly music-crowded environment.

Like his friend Alan Hovhaness, Cowell travelled far and wide. During the late 1950s he toured the Middle East and Asia under a Rockefeller grant. His Homage to Iran is part of his legacy of that time. It is for Persian drum, violin and piano. The four movements comprise two that are rhythmically tense and alive with exotic Middle-Eastern accents - hypnotic and busily patterned. The second movement, a pressurised ppp presto dashes away like the Flight of the Bumble Bee. The finale echoes with the fate motif of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

The Piece for piano and strings sings of Cowell the 'bad boy' of the 1920s. It is explosive, sullen, dissonant - a fractured mirror with shards in free fall. Vestiges and Euphoria are gentler but still in the expressionist realm. What's This? is alive with brutal mechanical energy - questioning and uncaring. Elegie shadows the sound of bells with much plucking and arpeggio gestures across the strings inside the piano case. Very strange but not as strange as The Banshee - the Irish spirit that wails at the time of death. The piano strings are here struck and brushed inside the body of the piano making a positively electronic effect that is at times suggestive of Hovhaness's Great Whales, at others of the bubbling and burbling score for 'The Forbidden Planet'.

In the two Riegger songs to words by the composer, Wallingford Riegger's daughter, the baritone line is ballad-like. Conventionality is fended off by the experimentally dissonant piano part.

Six Casual Developments for clarinet and piano is said to be jazz-influenced; there is surely some jazz there but other voices include the Klezmer wheeze wonderfully carried off by that virtuoso of Klezmer artists, David Krakauer - listen to his contribution to the Naxos Milken series. Another presence is the troubled and cloud-shaded world of Stravinsky's Rite. They would make for a provocative contrast with Finzi's equally brief Five Bagatelles.

The Set of Five is for violin, percussion and piano and takes us back in the direction of the Asian experience. This is mingled with baroque voices ranging from Bach to Vivaldi. The percussion part suggests gamelan. There is even a flighty allegro paralleling the Presto from the Iran Homage. The finale, a Vigoroso, superbly combines the exaltation of the violin line with the excitement of the percussion punctuation - a mercurially changeable ostinato. This is a majestic piece in a series of portraits.

The Four Piano Pieces comprise Deep Color a folksong-inflected piece in which the left-hand takes the lyrical elation while the right-hand explores volleyed dissonances and despairing negation. It is a little like the disruptive voice of Nielsen's side drum in the Fifth Symphony. Did I also hear the shreds of Negro spirituals? It is a fine piece and would match up well with Peter Maxwell Davies Farewell to Stromness. The Fairy answer again has Cowell instructing his pianist to strum inside the piano to create a disembodied effect of distant surreal harping. Fabric is of a cold and veiled consistency suggestive of the most impressionistic studies by Sorabji and with the melodic line indebted to Chopin. Tiger uses immensely spread tone-clusters. This is the tiger in murderous fight with its prey. The furious music suggests Shostakovich at one moment and Conlon Nancarrow at the next.

The eleven minute Quartet is an active piece with Beethoven's insistent energetic life and Bach's profound legato grace - busy or in repose. The molto vivace is a joyous song, liberating - a wonderfully light-filled piece dancing with sunlight.

The Three Anti-Modernist Songs are zany and surreal. The songs of Lord Berners are a reasonable parallel. The last song is Who wrote this fiendish thing the Rite of Spring set to a melodic line like the best of Warlock or Hadley.

The eleven minute Suite for violin and piano is miles away in mood from the songs. The impassioned Rubbra-like violin cantilena rides in nobility and grace over the triumphant storm of the piano chords - silver to the piano's steel grey. Once again in the andante calmato it is as if the violin sings like the seraph while death stalks in the piano line.

Polyphonica is for a small orchestra - an object lesson in dissonant counterpoint - always a model of clarity. The Irish suite is also for small orchestra - this time with piano. The Banshee heard for solo piano in the other disc, here appears with the orchestra adding eerie layerings and moans to the already eldritch aural repertoire of the piano played directly into its groaning and moaning entrails. Leprechaun is its second movement. The strange sounds of his supernatural hammering are evoked with real humour yet avoiding tweeness. Fairy Bells is all romantic benevolence but never sentimental. The sound has the translucent quality of Ravel and the bells ring out like starry pinpoints. Again this is superb material. How can this music not have made its way in the world.

Both discs are well documented including the texts of the songs as sung.

Collectors who know the CRI, First Edition, Citadel, Albany and Mode catalogues will be aware of a smattering of Cowell's output: a handful of symphonies, chamber pieces, chamber music, piano solos and songs. These two discs are central to any Cowell collection. They are available separately so if you do not feel like going for both then buy volume 2.

Rob Barnett



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