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Henry COWELL (1897-1965)

The Morning Pool
Song in the Songless
Music When Soft Voices Die
Angus Og
Manuanaun's Birthing
Where She Lies
How Old is Song?
Mother Goose Rhymes
Two Songs on Poems of Catherine Riegger
The Pasture
Spring Pools
The Donkey
The Little Black Boy
Three Songs on Poems of Langston Hughes
Mice Lament
Because the Cat
Three Songs on Poems of Padraic Colum
Firelight and Lamp

Mary Ann Hart, mezzo, Robert Osborne, bass-baritone, Jeanne Golan, piano
Rec. Aug-Nov 1996, New York Town Hall, DDD
ALBANY TROY 240 [57.38]

These songs span virtually the whole of Cowell's musically productive life from 1914 to three years short of his death.

Cowell, though an experimenter and dissident of the Ornstein stamp, wrote in a fairly orthodox language especially in the songs from the teens of the last century. He is more ethereal than Carpenter (featured in a parallel Albany collection) with the music describing the swirling pearlescence of William Baines - the aural analogue of Virgil Finlay’s line drawings. There is about this writing something of the atmosphere of Abraham Merritt’s ‘The Moonpool’ and ‘The King In Yellow’. Cowell’s choice of poetry however is from among the greats and second rank such as Colum, Blake, Chesterton, Frost, Millay, Meredith, Shelley and Pound.

Osborne's sturdy yet sensitive range is fully tried and tested. His vocal character lies somewhere between the young Benjamin Luxon (before the onset of that beat in his voice) and the golden ‘heldentone’ of Brian Rayner Cook. Hart and Golan are also excellent.

The St Vincent Millay song, with its sepulchral dissonances, is a strange and most striking piece and an axle-turn from Manaunan's birthing which is a conventional ballad. How Old Is Song? dates from 1931 and has slashes across the piano's exposed strings - an ethereal and still conjuring. Note the wandering tonality of the Mother Goose set. Two years later and there is a no-messing clangour in the piano part. The voice begins to lose its balladry heroism substituting the delusion and nightmare of Barber's Dover Beach. It is heavy with cataclysm. There is an ululation and a drifting out of focus as darkling armies, dissolute and with eyes rolling, pass by in grim parade. 1944 and The Pasture (Frost) sees a return to simplicity. This might almost be Copland in Tender Land vein. Spring Pools, another Frost setting, has the innocent daisy-pied quality found in Moeran’s Shakespeare quartet. Chesterton's famous blessed and reviled Donkey is taken sing-song at first but grows subtle and caustic on the words monstrous head and sickening cry. The jangling Mice Lament is to words by Ella Grainger. Percy employed Cowell as musical secretary after his release from San Quentin prison.

Albany are owed thanks for printing the words of all the songs. I do not underestimate the grief and annoyance that must go with getting all the necessary waivers and permissions.

One of Albany USA's few blindspots lies in its failure to see the convenience of giving birth and death years of the composer on the back of the jewel case; a minor cavil, of course in the face of such an imaginative and revealing anthology.

Rob Barnett

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