Henry Cowell is an example of a composer who was many things
to many people, from avant-garde experimentalist to folk/traditional music
adept. This disc is dominated by, though not entirely, the latter aspect
of his musical personality. The title piece of the disc, though not a
very accurate reflection of the disc as a whole, is the Persian Set.
It dates from just after a three month sojourn in Iran in the 1950s and
incorporates elements of that country's musical tradition. It is, to these
ears, a fairly successful cross-fertilisation and, in many ways, ahead
of its time. That said, it is not my favourite piece on the disc - there
are several far stronger and far more memorable works. The Hymn and
Fuguing Tune is one of a set of eighteen, written between 1944 and
1964, inspired by the great New England "shape-note" hymn composer William
Billings. This is the second, for string orchestra (another, for oboe
and strings, appears on a classic Argo ASMF/Marriner disc of Ives Third
Symphony, Barber's Adagio and Copland's Quiet City),
and is typical in that it provides a more gentle derivation of Billings
than, say, William Schuman's otherwise excellent New England Triptych.
Listeners may even be reminded of the string works of Finzi at times (e.g.
The American Melting Pot and Old American
Country Set are the most accessible and often most memorable selections
here. The former pays musical tribute, usually without descending to
pastiche, to the different ethnic traditions that have come together
in the modern United States. The Air movement, a short but heartfelt
tribute to William Grant Still (one friend who stood by Cowell when
he was in San Quentin prison in the late 1930s), is beautiful and the
rest of the set are all very enjoyable. The Old American Country
Set reminds me, in places, of Virgil Thomson's evocative film scores
and was inspired by memories of Cowell's childhood in the Midwest. It
also draws considerably on his Irish heritage and is superbly put together.
The Air for solo violin and strings shares much
in common with the Hymn and Fuguing Tune and shows just how close
the American and English pastoral traditions can sometimes come to each
other. The final piece on the disc, the Adagio, is the most experimental
in that it employs atonality and comes from a work for five strings
(Ensemble) whose outer movements call for, among other instruments,
American Indian thundersticks (bullroarers).
Cowell is often mentioned in the same breadth as composers
like Cage and Ives but, like Ives, in addition to a radical side, he
also had a gentler, more lyrical muse and, it is primarily that one
that is recorded here. It seems entirely fitting that the extremely
informative booklet is written by the Recording Secretary of the International
Percy Grainger Society because it is that complex but amiable figure
that Cowell most often evokes, at least on this evidence. Warmly recommended.