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8.559192  AmazonUK   AmazonUS

8.559193  AmazonUK   AmazonUS

Henry COWELL (1897 - 1965)
Instrumental, Chamber and Vocal Music Vols. 1 and 2

Quartet for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord (1954) [10.51]
Suite for Violin and Piano (1925) [11.03]
Polyphonica for Small Orchestra (1930) [3.48]
Irish Suite for String Piano and Small Orchestra (1929) [16.39]
Homage to Iran (1957) [14.50]
Casual Developments (6) (1933) [7.43]
Set of Five (1952) [16.32]
Songs (2), Poems of Catherine Riegger (1936) [4.23]: Sunset; Rest
Three Anti-Modernist Songs (1938) [6.55]: "A Sharp Where You’d Expect a Natural"; "Hark! From the Pit a Fearsome sound"; "Who Wrote This Fiendish ‘Rite of Spring?’"
Piano Works: Deep Color (1938) [6.36]; Piece for Piano with strings (1924) [3.34]; The Fairy Answer (1929) [4.18]; Fabric (1920) [1.28]; Tiger (1929) [3.01]; Vestiges (1920) [2.31]; Euphoria (1929) [0.59]; What’s This (1915) [0.35]; Elegie (1941) [5.16]; The Banshee (1925) [2.05]
Continuum: Joel Sachs, conductor, piano, and persian Drum; Cheryl Selzer, piano and harpsichord; Mark Steinberg, Marilyn Dubow, Mia Su, violins; Ellen Lang, mezzo-soprano; Raymond Murcell, baritone; Gordon Gottlieb, percussion; Jayn Rosenfeld, flute; Marsha Heller, oboe, Maria Kitsopoulos, cello.
Notes in English and Deutsch.
Recorded various locations in New York City, New York, USA, between 1984 and 1992. Previously released on Musical Heritage Society label.
NAXOS 8.559192 [65.46] 8.559193 [59.44] in two jewel boxes, available separately.

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Comparison Recordings of music by Cowell:
The Banshee, etc., Henry Cowell, piano, w/spoken comments. Smithsonian/Folkways CD SF 40801
Vestiges, etc., Alan Feinberg, piano Argo CD 436-925-2
The Banshee, etc.; Chris Brown, Sorrel Hays, Joe Kubera, Sarah Cahill, et al. New Albion 103
Violin Sonata; Joseph Szigeti, v; Carlo Bussotti, pno. [monophonic LP] CBS CE 4841
Set of Five; Trio Phoenix, Rick Kvistad Koch 3-7205-2H1
Hymn and Fuguing Tune #3, Ongaku, Symphonies 11 & 15; Whitney, Mester, Louisville Orch., [ADD] [HDCD] First Edition FECD 0003 []

Henry Cowell’s music ranges from the most ethereally beautiful and romantic to the wildest of crazy noises, and everything in between, so every music lover should love at least a few, but maybe no more than a few, of his works. In particular, his Violin Sonata is one of the finest violin sonatas ever written, a beautiful work everyone can enjoy, especially in the recording by Joseph Szigeti and Bussotti, which recording currently languishes imprisoned in the Sony tape vaults, crying out for re-release. Is anybody over there listening? Cowell’s obligatory homage to Bach consisted in his 18 "Hymns and Fuguing Tunes" which are none other than preludes and fugues with an American hymn book flavour, for various string ensembles. Of his twenty Symphonies only a few classic recordings have been reissued on CD.

Henry Cowell is one of three artists I am aware of who actually went to prison accused of homosexual acts — the other two are [if I recall correctly] Johann Rosenmüller and, of course, Oscar Wilde. Cowell served four years in the cruel San Quentin prison but was paroled at the intervention of Percy Grainger and, due to the obvious unfairness of the conviction, eventually pardoned by California’s liberal Governor Culbert L. Olsen who also pardoned other persons unjustly convicted by right-wing officials. Nevertheless Cowell’s friend Charles Ives would no longer have anything to do with him, and Cowell, a California native, never lived in that state again. Ives and Cowell both used tone clusters (Cowell is credited with inventing the term) and both liked to write simultaneous musical lines which had no obvious relationship — certainly no tonal relationship—with each other so at odd moments their styles can sound alike.

On these disks are three kinds of works: Piano works, Piano songs, and chamber works which generally contrast some generally conservative musical phrases against some peculiar accompaniments, either percussion, prepared piano, or tone clusters played on the keyboard with the fist or the forearm. The sound at first is startling, on repeated listening becomes merely exotic, and finally after some time ingenious and effective.

Catherine Riegger is the daughter of composer Wallingford Riegger whose best known work is "New Dance," a brief, very effective orchestral allegro occasionally played.

Some of Cowell’s piano works are written in regular notation to be played from the keyboard, but in works like "The Banshee" and "The Tides of Manaunaun (not recorded on these disks)" Cowell is essentially treating the piano as a synthesiser or an auto-harp, certainly defeating the piano’s authentic character. Many of Cowell’s prepared piano works require two executants, one seated at the keyboard and operating the keys and pedals, the other at the piano sounding board strumming, scraping, or hammering directly on the strings. Detailed instructions on how to do this must be included with the actual score. This angers some traditional pianists quite apart from the sound of the resulting music, which is generally very successful. "The Banshee" is possibly Cowell’s masterpiece; Cowell himself recorded it very clearly along with 18 other of his piano works, including a 13 minute spoken autograph describing the origins of the music and the Irish legends behind many of the titles, a document any real collector must have. Cowell’s monophonic recording of "The Banshee" runs for 2’35", including a vocal autograph, but sounds all but identical to this one in stereo.

"Piano with Strings" is another phrase for "prepared piano," and doesn’t refer to a work for piano accompanied by other stringed instruments.

Of the Three Anti-Modernist Songs, the text of "Who Wrote This Crazy Rite of Spring" appeared unsigned as a poem in the Boston Herald for February 9, 1924, three weeks after Pierre Monteux conducted the Boston premier of the work, only the second performance in the US following the 1922 premier in Philadelphia under Stokowski. All three of the poems were taken by Cowell from their re-publication in a book Music Since 1900 by Cowell’s friend, musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky, who probably originally wrote them although he wouldn’t admit it.

It is necessary to keep reminding oneself that Cowell is doing these wild and crazy things in the nineteen twenties and thirties, not the forties, fifties, and sixties when his students, John Cage, Lou Harrison, etc. were doing similar things. Cowell’s music is the fount, so to speak, and in many instances often better than later derivative works by others.

My including mention above of the First Edition recording of other music by Cowell has the purpose of announcing that these groundbreaking recordings are again available; consult their web-site. This particular disk makes another point: Cowell’s Hymn & Fuguing Tune #3 is remarkably like parts of Hovhaness’ Mysterious Mountain Symphony composed the same year. Ongaku is embarrassingly similar to Hovhaness’ Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints written ten years later. It is remarked that Cowell seemed in too much of a hurry exploring to bother to write a masterpiece, and maybe what we have here is an example of how his explorations were worked into masterpieces by others.

Paul Shoemaker

see also review by Patrick Waller


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