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Henry COWELL (1897-1965)
Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 3 (1954) [7:01]
Ongaku for Orchestra (1957) • [14:06]
(I Gagaku [5:48]; II Sankyoku [8:18])
Symphony No. 11, Seven Rituals of Music (1954) • [21:38]
(I Andantino [4:16]; II Allegro [3:23]; III Lento [3:19]; IV Presto [3:22]; V Adagio [3:24]; VI Vivace [1:35]; VII Andante [2:12])
Thesis (Symphony No. 15) (1961) [20:28]
(Movement I: I Largo [2:15]; II Andante [3:45]; III Presto [1:36]; IV Allegretto [1:15]; V Allegro (Part One) [2:44]; Recapitulation (Part Two) [5:58]; Movement II I Moderato [4:04])
Louisville Orchestra/Robert S. Whitney
Recorded: 1954, 1958, 1961, 1967, Louisville, Kentucky
Executive producer: Matthew Walters
Original supervising producer: Howard Scott
Annotation: Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, John Kennedy
Partial funding by Aaron Copland Fund for Music, National Endowment for the Arts, Neil Cotiaux.
• indicates world premiere recording
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Henry Dixon Cowell led a far from uneventful life. His career is separated by a term of imprisonment (1936-1940) on a homosexual charge. He was an early revolutionary of the keyboard. His The Tides of Manaunaun written in 1912 used noted clusters. Dissonant counterpoint and intricate rhythmic patterning characterised his music of the period 1915-1919. He extended his armoury in 1925 for the piano solo The Banshee in which the pianist is called on to reach inside the piano and strum and pluck the strings. He toured world-wide and in 1930 was the first US pianist to tour the USSR. His New Music Edition published works by Ives, Ruggles (come on Sony, when are you going to reissue MTT’s complete Ruggles collection?), Webern, Schoenberg and Varese. After 1940 he toured very widely. He wrote twenty symphonies, a piano concerto, various works for string quartet, piano music, songs and choruses.

He wrote a sequence of eighteen Hymn and Fuguing Tunes for instrumental ensembles of varying specifications, full orchestra and vocal group. Their variety and span suggests comparison with the Bachianas of Villa-Lobos however as yet no-one has thought it worthwhile to produce a complete recorded edition. The burly Third Hymn and Fuguing Tune sounds somewhat Finzian without quite the intensity of lyricism found in Finzi. This strikes me as very masculine music. The composer tells us that the piece is in the Dorian mode and its mise-en-scène is the Southern Revival rather than the seemly New England anthem. This track is only stereo one on the disc. The others are in surprisingly powerful mono. Ongaku is a diptych with the initial Gagaku movement echoing with ceremonial drums and with the singing lines taken by the strings in Japanese style. Similarly Japanese in impression is the flightily fantastic and curvaceous Sankyoku in which flute, cor anglais and harp play important roles. Lovely music, always sharply defined without fuzziness or confusion of textures and eloquently put across by Whitney and his orchestra. This music is bound to prompt comparison with that of Hovhaness and there is certainly a kinship in oriental dignity, use of percussion and the ceremonial almost stylised dignity of the writing.

The Eleventh Symphony dates from four years before Ongaku. Like Ongaku it was a Louisville Orchestra commission. The Seven Rituals of Music echo the seven ages of man. The movements are compact and the whole sequence is over within 22 minutes. The works proceeds through a cool almost Sibelian cantilena, to a ruthless Schuman-like Allegro with much for brass and percussion. The haunted Lento is intended to portray the Ritual of Love with discreet Foulds-like use of microtones high in the violin parts which is followed by a dance movement with a frankly Irish skirl and hoe-down insouciance. There is another adagio to reflect the Ritual of Magic, again haunted and haunting with pitter-patter activity and swirling microtonal swooning from the pianissimo violins. The great love theme from Stravinsky’s Firebird passes spectrally throughout these pages.

The Fifteenth Symphony is in five very brief movements - no time for monotony nor much for development either. This time the work is over within 21 minutes. Those eerie microtonal swayings similar to the cyclical swooning in Hovhaness’s Fra Angelico also come into play in this work. The whispered ululation of the violins contracts with the cellos broad and confidently stalking Bachian melody in the Andante. The conspiratorial Presto is busy and perhaps influenced by Shostakovich. Cowell’s engaging penchant for pattering ostinatos and slowly surging song-like melodies is much in evidence in this late work.

Cowell’s twenty symphonies were written between 1918 when he was 21 to 1961 when he was 64 and within four years of his death. This disc together with the now deleted CRI American Masters disc (CRI CD 740) containing Symphonies 7 and 16 together form the bulwarks of an essential Cowell collection. You can often find copies of the CRI disc on ebay.

These performances are entirely Whitney-conducted and represent an essential part of any Cowell collection or indeed for anyone wanting to explore the variegated riches and strangenesses of the American symphony during the last century.

Rob Barnett

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