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James COHN (b. 1928)
Concerto da Camera Op.60 (1982)
Quintet No.2 for Winds Op.10/70 (1947/1992)a
Serenade Op.68 (1990)
Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello Op.66 (1988)b
Mount Gretna Suite Op.69 (1991)
The Leonardo Triob; The Quintet of the Americasa; The XLNT Sinfonietta
Recorded: Auditorium, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York, September 1992
XLNT MUSIC CD 18007 [69:48]

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James COHN (b. 1928)
Little Overture for Wind Quartet Op.59 (1982)a
Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano Op.56 (1981)b
Sonata Romantica Op.18 (1952)c
Quintet for Winds Op.36b (1981)d
Sonata Robusta Op.55 (1980)e
Sonata for Flute and Piano Op.52 (1974)f
The Goldfinch Variations Op.61 (1984)g
Marina Piccinini (flute)adf; Matthew Dine (oboe)ad; Jon Manasse (clarinet)abd; Michael Finn (bassoon)ade; Joel Tarpley (horn)d; Nami Akamatsu (double bass)c; Seann Alderking (piano)bcef
Recorded: Vanguard Studio, New York, May 1985
XLNT MUSIC CD 18006 [72:06]
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James COHN (b. 1928)
Homage Op.31 (1959)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra Op.79 (2000)
Concerto for Trumpet and Strings Op.76 (1996)
Concerto for Concertina and Strings Op.44 (1966)
Evocations – Clarinet Concerto No.2 Op.75 (1996)
A Song of the Waters Op.53 (1976)
Miriam Conti (piano); Manon Lafrance (trumpet); Wim Wakker (concertina); Jon Manasse (clarinet); Latvian National Symphony Orchestra; Vakhtang Jordania
Recorded: Riga Recording Company, October 2001
XLNT MUSIC CD 18010 [73:46]

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James COHN (b. 1928)
Concerto for Clarinet and Strings Op.62 (1986)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)

Clarinet Quintet KV 581 (1789
Louis SPOHR (1784 – 1859)

Fantasy and Variations Op.81 (1814)
George GERSHWIN (1898 – 1937)

Three Piano Preludes (1926, arr. James Cohn)
Jon Manasse (clarinet); The Shangai Quartet; The XLNT Sinfonietta
Recorded: Rutgers Presbyterian Church, New York City, October 1993
XLNT MUSIC CD 18009 [62:52]

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James Cohn was born in 1928 in Newark, New Jersey. After having completed early lessons in piano, violin and composition, he studied with Wayne Barlow, Roy Harris and Bernard Wagenaar. He majored in Composition at Juilliard, graduating in 1950. His present varied output includes eight symphonies, chamber and choral music, orchestral works and a one-act opera The Fall of the City Op.17 (1952). His Symphony No.2 Op.13 (1949) won a prize at the Queen Elizabeth Composition Competition in Brussels whereas his Symphony No.4 Op.29 (1956) was awarded an A.I.D.E.M. prize. Paul Paray introduced his Symphony No.3 Op.27 (1955) and his Variations "The Wayfaring Stranger" Op.34 (1960, either for orchestra or wind ensemble).

These four discs provide a fairly comprehensive survey of his present output, since one of them includes a fairly recent work, the Piano Concerto completed as recently as 2000. His music may be best described as Neo-classical, and is characterised by clarity, economy of means, tunefulness and instrumental colour, with a pinch of light-hearted humour and – at times – bittersweet irony. Most pieces in these discs are fairly short, perfectly proportioned and all superbly crafted, so that the music never outstays its welcome. This often unpretentious and good-natured music-making may not plumb any great depths, but it is most refreshing and attractive. Moreover, the concertos display a remarkable resourcefulness (particularly evident in the Concertina Concerto), as do the somewhat unusual Sonata Romantica Op.18 (for double bass and piano) and the Sonata Robusta Op.55 (for bassoon and piano). Listening to these beautifully made pieces often had me thinking of Poulenc, Ibert and Sauguet, which – I think – gives a fairly good idea of what the music sounds like. Add to this, the not infrequent quotations of American hymn tunes or folk songs, which brings the composer into the orbit of American composers such as Copland or Thomson. Now, of course, I would really like to hear the symphonies for a fuller assessment of his achievement.

Many of his works are laid-out in traditional patterns, i.e. often in three compact movements (Moderate – Slow – Fast), although some of them are scored for unusual instrumental forces, such as the delightful Concerto da Camera Op.60 for violin, piano and wind quintet. This was commissioned by the McKim Fund to be premiered during the bicentennial of the first treaty between the Netherlands and the United States. So, as requested, the composer appropriately includes music "known, played or sung" by Dutch settlers in New York. Thus, the final movement is a free fantasia on two Dutch tunes. The Second Wind Quintet is in fact the re-working of an earlier work that originated as a septet for a rather unusual combination (flute, two clarinets, horn, trumpet, viola and cello). As most pieces here, it is in three short, contrasted movements (Sinfonia – Nocturne – Scherzo). Though not as unusual, the Serenade Op.68 ( three movements : Aubade – Nocturne – Festival) is scored for flute, violin and cello. The third movement is a quodlibet (a form apparently much favoured by the composer). Am I right (or wrong) in spotting an allusion to Paganini’s ubiquitous Caprice (yes, THE caprice) in the amusing finale? The Piano Trio is very similar to the Serenade, in that the slow movement and the dance-like finale have some inflections of popular music. The orchestral Mount Gretna Suite Op.69 is a tone-poem in four movements obliquely re-telling the history of the village of Mount Gretna in Southern Pennsylvania : 1783: A wild garden of the forest, 1883-1893: Development, 1894-1984: Dwelling places and changing times, 1991: An evening stroll around Mount Gretna. This colourful piece is scored for the same orchestral forces as the original version of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, viz. thirteen players. On the whole it is quite similar to Copland’s work, at least in spirit, if not necessarily in the letter.

The second disc under review is entirely devoted to chamber works which – I think – are fully representative of Cohn’s music-making. The various sonatas here display a remarkable instrumental flair and are all beautifully written for the instruments, including the somewhat rarer double bass for which Cohn composed a beautiful sonata. As I remarked earlier in this review, these concise sonatas are perfectly proportioned and never outstay their welcome. The other pieces are written for small chamber ensembles, such as the delightful Little Overture Op.59 (for wind quartet), the enjoyable Goldfinch Variations Op.61 (for three treble instruments) or the very fine Quintet for Winds Op.36b, the latter being a re-working of the Third String Quartet of 1961. I consider this particular disc the best possible introduction to Cohn’s music.

Homage Op.31 was actually composed as a tribute to John Foster Dulles, the former American Secretary of State who was then terminally ill. This elegy opens in a somewhat Elgarian noble mood, but the music, lavishly quoting The Star Spangled Banner, gets a bit too crudely jingoistic as it unfolds. In fact, I find it a bit too much of a good thing and the only disappointing work in this selection.

Cohn has composed quite a number of concertos, among others, two for piano (there exists in fact an early Piano Concertino Op.8 of 1946), two for clarinet and one each for trumpet and concertina. So, what we have here, is his almost complete series of concertos. Curiously enough, the earliest one is the one for the most unusual instrument, the Concertina Concerto Op.44 completed in 1966. It is again in three movements: Capriccio – Romanza (more of a slow dance than a romance, I think) – Rondo. There is much invention and imagination in this attractive piece, which should not be overlooked, since there are not that many concertos for concertina. Incidentally, the sound is not very different from that of the harmonica, and I wonder whether it would be possible to play it on the harmonica. Anyway, a most welcome, and at times intriguing curiosity that deserves to be better known. The Trumpet Concerto Op.76, again in three concise movements, might be described as "updated Haydn", which I do not mean as a criticism, but rather as an indication of what to expect from this delightful work. The first movement is replete with fanfare-like gestures and bravura passages including a brilliant cadenza. The second movement is a nostalgic "Blue Waltz" and the final movement Parade is a lively Rondo with a ritornello that makes me think of You are in the army now... The Second Clarinet Concerto Evocations Op.75 is dedicated to Christopher Jepperson, who was then Principal Clarinetist in a Colombian symphony orchestra. To a certain extent, this is the most classical of these concertos, although the concluding Carnival is appropriately full of Latin-American dance rhythms, somewhat à la Milhaud in his Brazilian mood. The most recent concerto is the Piano Concerto Op.79 completed in 2000. In fact, it is a re-worked and expanded version of an earlier piano quartet, although the third movement (a tango) is entirely new; the final movement of the piano quartet was not deemed brilliant enough as a finale for a piano concerto. The music moves along the same lines as in most other pieces, with some jazzy touches, as in the slow movement (shades of Gershwin here). A Song of the Waters Op.53 is a tone-poem in all but the name, laid-out as a set of free variations on Shenandoah; a sort of American Vltava, evoking the journey of the river from its birthplace in the mountains to its final entrance into the sea. (One may also think of Maconchy’s Proud Thames.) This is a very fine, attractive piece of music and a splendid conclusion to this most welcome release.

The last disc is more of a tribute to Jon Manasse’s artistry, although Cohn is also represented by his beautifully-made arrangement of Gershwin’s Three Piano Preludes (for clarinet and piano in 1987 and scored for strings for the present recording) and by his substantial Clarinet Concerto Op.62, actually his first clarinet concerto completed at Manasse’s request.

In short, these discs provide for a fair survey of James Cohn’s varied output which may be best described as Neo-classical with a clear American touch. This places him in the same American symphonic orbit as Piston, Creston, Copland and Thomson as well as being close to the Gallic tradition of Poulenc, Ibert and Sauguet. None the worse for that, of course, for there are many fine works here that clearly deserve wider exposure. The performances and recordings are excellent, and make for a couple of hours of musically satisfying listening.

Hubert Culot

Cohn: neo-classical with an American touch. Close to the Gallic tradition of Poulenc, Ibert and Sauguet. Fine works deserving wider exposure. Performances and recordings excellent ... musically satisfying listening. ... see Full Review

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