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Henry COWELL (1897-1965)
Instrumental, Chamber and Vocal Music - Vol. 1

Piano Pieces [15:07] : Deep Colour; The Fairy Answer; Fabric; Tiger
Joel Sachs (piano)
Quartet for flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord [10:51]
Three Anti-Modernist Songs [6:55]
Ellen Lang (mezzo soprano)
Suite for violin and piano [11:03]
Polyphonica, for small orchestra (1930) [3:48]
Irish Suite, for string piano and small orchestra (1925) [16:39]
Continuum/Cheryl Seltzer; Joel Sachs
Rec. American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York in April 1990 DDD

Henry COWELL (1897-1965)
Instrumental, Chamber and Vocal Music - Vol. 2

Homage to Iran (1957) [14:50]
Mark Steinberg (Violin), Joel Sachs (Persian Drum), Cheryl Seltzer (piano)
Piece for piano with strings (1924) [3:34] ; Vestiges [6:55] ; Euphoria (1929) [0:59]
What's This (1915) [0:35] Elegie (1941) [5:16] The Banshee (1925) [2:05]
Cheryl Seltzer (piano)
Two Songs - Poems of Catherine Riegger [4:23]
Raymond Murcell (baritone), Cheryl Seltzer (piano)
Six Casual Developments (1933) [7:43]
David Krakauer (clarinet), Cheryl Seltzer (piano)
Set of Five (1952) [16:32]
Marilyn Dubow (Violin), Gordon Gottlieb (Percussion), Joel Sachs (Piano)
Rec. Cooper Union, New York in 1984 and American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York in 1992 DDD

Naxos continue to dig out interesting music by fairly obscure composers. There is a companion disc of Henry Cowell’s music from the ensemble Continuum (see link below to a review of both) which also mixes piano music, song and chamber music. Given that this was recorded 15 years ago, I would imagine it has been issued before but I know not where.

Understanding of Cowell’s music is aided by the biographical information provided in Joel Sachs’s excellent notes. He was born in California to Irish parents who were writers and anarchists. They separated and Cowell’s education suffered until he met a Stanford university professor at the age of 12 who recognized his various talents. Studying English and Music at Stanford, his approach was unorthodox but he was soon composing and performing his own works. Two of Cowell’s innovations were the "tone cluster" based on multiple seconds and a technique of playing the piano which involves, in part, playing the strings directly.

This disc opens with four piano pieces from the 1920s and 1930s which provide a good demonstration of these techniques. The quartet which follows was written in 1954 for the harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe. It is baroque-inspired and succinct but provides a memorable concoction of styles. The Anti-Modernist Songs were written in 1938 after Cowell had been imprisoned for 15 years; he was paroled after 4 years "to the supervision of Percy Grainger" – I should imagine they got on well! The six-movement Suite for violin and piano dates from 1925. The first and fifth are particularly striking, with the piano concentrating on tone clusters whilst the violin sings from a bygone age.

The last two pieces on the disc are for chamber-sized orchestra. Polyphonica is a taut miniature whilst the Irish Suite delves Cowell’s roots. The "string piano" solo part in the latter essentially means a piano played using Cowell’s technique. This part had to be reconstructed by the soloist, Cheryl Seltzer and the work was thought to have been unperformed for 60 years before the recording was made.

All this music is played with great conviction by members of Continuum. Pictures of this ensemble in the booklet are striking and convey their enthusiasm. Excellent presentation and recorded sound, a varied and worthwhile programme at bargain price, need I say more?

Turning to the second volume: If the mood is right, John Cage’s works for the prepared piano (one with various items inserted between the strings) can be quite conducive listening. Henry Cowell taught Cage but it might be argued that his innovations were greater. No artificial aids here but almost every other means of obtaining different kinds of sounds from the piano is on offer (including the usual approach). Each of the works on this disc features the piano but the combinations of instruments (and baritone voice in the songs) are interestingly varied. Both the Homage to Iran (which reflects Cowell’s fascination with Asia) and the Set of Five include important percussion parts and the Six Casual Developments is for clarinet and piano. This latter piece lasts less than 8 minutes but is a work of some substance and originality. Indeed, throughout the programme, Cowell’s musical personality shines brightly and is considerably more approachable than Cage’s. He also taught Gershwin (who was just a year younger) and admirers of the great George will recognise the kinship.

This is even more fascinating than the first volume. As previously, there is both commitment and panache from the performers and a decent recording. A well-documented and worthy addition to the American Classics series. Cowell was a prolific composer who wrote twenty symphonies and much else besides. Hopefully Naxos will give us the opportunity to explore his music further.

Patrick C Waller

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