> Henry Cowell - Orchestral Works [NH]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Henry COWELL (1897-1965)
Orchestral Works

Persian Set
Hymn and Fuguing Tune
American Melting Pot
Air (for Solo Violin and String Orchestra)*
Old American Country Set
Adagio (from Ensemble for String Orchestra)

*Michael Sutton, violin
Manhattan Chamber Orchestra
Richard Auldon Clark, conductor
Recorded at the Recital Hall, SUNY, Purchase 11th - 12th February 1993


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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. Prelude).

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.

Neil Horner

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