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Henry COWELL (1897-1965)
Persian Set (1957) [15:48]
Hymn and Fuguing Tune for string orchestra (1944) [6:55]
American Melting Pot (1940) [16:37]
Air for solo violin and string orchestra (1952) [6:09]
Old American Country Set (1937-39) [13:41]
Adagio from Ensemble for string orchestra (1924) [3:36]
Manhattan Chamber Orchestra/Richard Auldon Clark
rec. 11-12 February 1993, Recital Hall, SUNY Purchase. DDD


Henry COWELL (1897-1965)
Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 10 for oboe and strings (1955) [9:14]
Air and Scherzo for alto saxophone and small orchestra (1963) [8:01]
Concerto Grosso for flute, oboe, clarinet, cello, harp and string orchestra (1963) [25:52]
Fiddler's Jig for violin and orchestra (1952) [2:16]
Vincent PERSICHETTI (1915-1987)
The Hollow Men for trumpet and strings (1944) [8:04]
Edward MacDOWELL (1860-1908)
To a Wild Rose (arr. string orchestra, Arthur Luck ) (1896) [2:42]
Humbert Lucarelli (oboe); Gary Louie (alto saxophone); Ashley Horne (violin); Chris Gekker (trumpet)
Manhattan Chamber Orchestra/Richard Auldon Clark
rec. April 1994, Recital Hall, SUNY Purchase. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

The American composer Henry Cowell has had some attention paid to him over the last decade but it has been scant. Two worthwhile collections appeared on Naxos American Classics and specialist labels such as Mode, Albany, Naxos, CRI and First Edition have not forgotten him. However his concertos and symphonies (20 of them) never attracted systematic recording plans. Looking back to the 1980s into the next decade even Delos that ultimately over-confident leviathan of American orchestral music managed to avoid adding Cowell to their Seattle recording schedule.

Koch International are low profile these days. Even so, they are active and keep their classical back catalogue live. These two Cowell chamber orchestra discs have been part of the Koch stable since 1993. There's also another from the same conductor/orchestra team containing music by a composer sometimes bracketed with Cowell: Alan Hovhaness. The Armenian-American composer's Mountains and Rivers Without End, St Gregory Prayer, Aria from Haroutian and Symphony No. 6 Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places are on 3-7221-2. Richard Auldon Clark and the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra also recorded the music of David Amram, Otto Luening, Alec Wilder and David Soldier.

The present pair of CDs concentrates on Cowell though the second, somewhat oddly, includes works by two other very different composers.

Cowell was born at Menlo Park, California but spent his formative years with his mother moving within Oklahoma, Kansas and Idaho. Buying his first piano in 1912 he experimented with chords and produced The Tides of Manaunan (1912) and Dynamic Motion (1914) in which dissonant tone clusters are used. Studies at UCB (1914-17) introduced him to atonality and polytonality. His 'wild man' European tours made quite an impression as did those by Antheil and Ornstein. He was the first American composer to be invited to visit Russia which he did in 1928 before such experimentation there became regarded as bourgeois formalism. After two decades of extremes he began to move to an accommodation with a sort of tangy tonalism. This can be heard in the works featured here.

His students from his years at the Peabody (1951-56) and Columbia (1949-65) include Luening, Moross, Siegmeister, Becker, Copland, Bacharach, Cage, Harrison and Herrmann. At one stage he had even had Gershwin as his pupil. Works by some of these composers as well as Ruggles, Ives, Still, Thomson, Varese, Schoenberg and Webern were published by Cowell's "New Music Edition".

From a base of having in the 1920s attracted admiration from Bartók, Hindemith, Schoenberg and Webern who conducted Cowell works in Vienna, Cowell went on to study oriental music in Berlin (1931-32). Having since the early 1940s been gripped by a fascination for folk music he went on a world tour in 1956 under a Rockefeller Foundation grant. He spent 1956 in Teheran hearing Iranian folk music every day. His Persian Set in four movements was premiered in Teheran on 17 September 1957. It incorporates a part for the Iranian Tar which is a double-bellied three stringed instrument similar to the mandolin. The mandolin takes the part of the Tar in this Koch recording. The sinuous sway of the swift-slipping violin in the Moderato entwines with the flute and the fast trembling mandolin played by Joyce Balint. There's also a banjo (Michael Rosenski) and a flavoursome minimalist percussion contribution from Tomoko Inaba. The banjo is evident in the wilder Allegretto. After a stilling Lento there's a celebratory Presto with mandolin and a wild-eyed, klezmer-like dervish whirl with shouts from the orchestra members. There you are - another work to add to Delius's Eventyr where the orchestra members are called on to shout out a sort of 'hey' or 'hoi'. It may loosely be bracketed with other Cowell works including the Homage to Iran and Ongaku.

American Melting Pot was premiered in 1943. It celebrates, across seven movements, the cultural bouillabaise that is America. There are movements for German (a sustained Finzian chorale in the manner of the Hymn Tunes), African (a quick and spirited spiritual), French (light-footed clip-clop quick-step), Oriental (a mysterious ruminating Alaparia movement), Slav (a folk dance - sturdily outlined by brass), Latino (Uirapuru chattery) and Celtic voices (a liquidly bubbling jig taking us back to Cowell's Gaelic roots). Strangely there was nothing representative of Scandinavia.

The sweetly contoured Air for solo violin and string orchestra is a walking-pace meditation with an underlying fast pulse.

Old American Country Set was premiered in Indianapolis on 28 February 1940. It is in part a memento of childhood days trailing from relative to relative across those three mid-West states. The English folk and hymnal character (Holst and RVW) of this piece perhaps links with Percy Grainger whose secretary Cowell ultimately became and whose folksong field recordings he catalogued. The Comallye movement has a nice banjo-picker aspect and the slow blooming Charivari is part dream and part river-steamer majestic. The Cornhuskin' Hornpipe recalls a fast-paced working song. Interesting that like Grainger Cowell experimented with new instruments. With Louis Theremin he produced the Rhythmicon for which he wrote a concerto with orchestra - the Rhythmicana.  
Adagio from Ensemble for string orchestra derives from his 1924 string quintet piece called simply Ensemble. This original work from his early cauldron of experimentation includes, in its outer movements, parts for bull-roarer, graphic notation and a few guides and launching points for experimentation. The movement which was arranged many years later takes us away from the lighter Cowell to his more subtle and awkwardly angular experiments of the 1920s. It is a sombre and tentative yet anxiety-shadowed meditation.

There are 18 Hymns and Fuguing Tunes written for various combinations between 1943 and 1964, the year before his death. The name derives from the hymns of William Walker and the fuguing tunes of William Billings. The Second of these is for string orchestra and was premiered over the radio in NYC on 23 March 1944. It is calming, dignified, rather English in a Rubbra-Finzi way yet with an infusion of Barber-like passion. The Tenth of these is amongst the most famous and featured on an early 1970s American music Decca anthology from Neville Marriner and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. The Finzian innocent passion of the Hymn is lent intensity by the oboe's guileless adumbration of the melody which becomes more animated in the Fuguing tune which will resonate with lovers of Holst's St Paul, Brook Green and Fugal Concerto.

He must have rather liked the diptych because in 1963 he developed a work written for piano and sax in 1961 into the Air and Scherzo for alto sax and small orchestra. This bipartite piece has an air that sweetly serenades the ear with a breathing underpinning from the strings that echoes Moeran and Goossens. There's nothing bluesy or jazz-like about it. The chuckling scherzo has the sax capering with other woodwind solos and then drawing breath for a nostalgic ballad.

Another late work of his is the large-scale five movement Concerto Grosso, premiered in Florida in 1964. Its boiling Maestoso instantly suggests Barber's Adagio, with the Allegretto being a lissom folk-dance led by oboe and clarinet. The Andante begins amid the cool beauty of a gently incessant harp figure off which the sounds of the passionate strings recall an amalgam of Finzi and Barber. The first of two allegros take us back to Holst's Brook Green and Fugal Concerto though with more verdant cantabile. That last element is dominant in the last allegro with some Grainger-like moments along the way. It's an intensely joyous piece and will win Cowell new friends if given a whirl.

Fiddler's Jig is a very brief brevity. It was written to a commission from the leader of the CBS Radio Orchestra, Maurice Wilks. It's a catchy piece with the rum-ti-tum quality of RVW's more bucolic moments.

Philadelphia was the home of Vincent Persichetti. The city's renowned concert halls and orchestra opened their programmes to his music. Like Cowell he has never had the popularity of Hanson, Schuman or Piston let alone that of Copland or Bernstein but he does merit exploration. This pupil of Roy Harris and Fritz Reiner wrote 160+ works including nine symphonies and 12 piano sonatas. His Hollow Men based on the poems of T.S. Eliot was premiered in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1946. It is a cantilena floated over a singing string band with the trumpet playing watchful troubadour as well as noble orator. The cast of the melody seems to reference Copland's Lincoln Portrait. I also wonder if the piece was influenced by similar such pieces by Alan Hovhaness. It is placid yet noble. 

New Yorker Edward MacDowell was one of America's nineteenth century romantics whose creativity was still seen as legitimised by European studies and models including Mendelssohn and Grieg. Their example and a certain irresistible sentimentality set the seal on his most popular piece: To a Wild Rose from his cycle Woodland Sketches. One of the world's piano stool salon favourites, it has been exhaustively arranged but here is one for string orchestra. This is affecting music of innocent beauty. It is played with great tenderness.

The whole recital works very well.

Rob Barnett

Alternative review of the Persian Set CD by Neil Horner


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