Richard Blackford

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Henry COWELL (1897-1965)
Dynamic Motion and The Five Encores to Dynamic Motion (1916) [12:50]
Sway Dance (1956) [2:14]
Two Woofs (1928) [1:41]
Hilarious Curtain-Opener [4:24]
Caoine [4:22]
Rhythmicana (1938) [6:45]
Irishman Dances [1:05]
Scherzo/It Isn’t It (1922) [1:42]
Fairy Bells (1928) [3:36]
Sinister Resonance [2:58]
Three Irish Legends (1917-22) [11:54]
Stacey Barelos (piano)
rec. 30 June - 2 July 2008, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin.

There is so much music by Henry Cowell that the likelihood of duplication, at least with his works for piano, appears to be hardly any kind of a problem so far. Looking on the MusicWeb International site there is one live demonstration and some discs from Naxos mixing piano with chamber works, and even an online search elsewhere failed to bring up much in the way of alternatives to the works in Stacey Barelos’s superbly recorded and supremely well played collection.

Following lines initiated by the likes of Charles Ives and Percy Grainger, Henry Cowell belongs amongst that relatively rare breed of composers who are genuinely avant-garde. Cowell pioneered techniques such as piano clusters and plucking the strings, and a physical way of playing which remains a staple of some improvisers today. What we have here is a well-chosen selection of works which demonstrate sincerely off the wall creativity and also a certain popular pragmatism which resulted in some surprisingly pleasant music. Sway Dance for instance, is the kind of approachable but intriguing little etude which would easily suit one of your graded examination board selections. The same goes for pieces like Caoine and Irishman Dances, the folk elements of which are clear for all to hear.

Humour is another strong element in these pieces, the children’s miniatures Two Woofs entertaining with a light, rhythmic touch which approaches jazz but avoids stereotype. The Hilarious Curtain-Opener is more humorous in its title, its contrasting sections and gentle stride left hand having something of the circus in it, but no real belly laughs. These pieces have a fascinatingly European quality to them - a kind of filtered Gottschalk which has sluiced back and forth over the Atlantic more than once.

Those aforementioned clusters appear in the six movements of Dynamic Motion and the Five Encores to Dynamic Motion, the massive variety of sonorities in the opening celebrated in a kind of variation form in the remaining movements. The booklet notes usefully enlighten us as to the reasons for some of these movements, for instance with music suggested by overhearing high and low voices in a Chinese laundry, and that the London Times described it as ‘the world’s loudest piano music’. Not connected with Cowell’s invention the rythmicon, the first movement of Rhythmicana has a surprising romantic feel to it, suggesting a Rachmaninov whose middle three fingers had been taped together. The piece as a whole has an exploratory and ‘post-ism’ feel to it which could place it anywhere in the 20th century, though I suspect there are few who would shout out ‘1938!’ in a blind audition.

Innovations galore can be found in the remaining works, with Scherzo/It Isn’t It rich in clusters and pungent strangeness, and Sinister Resonance working on damped strings, which creates atmospheric harmonics and unusual resonances inside the piano. The final trilogy, Three Irish Legends, opens with The Tides of Manaunaun; “a tone picture of primeval chaos” which builds a massive crescendo of sound from the lower registers, while a fairly innocent folk tune floats above. Further exotic sounds are created in the luminous The Hero Sun, and The Voice of Lir is another surprisingly elemental monument to sonority, an amazing creation for the early 1920s.

If you are interested in piano music and the course of 20th century musical history then you owe it to yourself to become acquainted with the remarkable worlds created by Henry Cowell. This is an excellent place to start, or to extend your knowledge of one of contemporary music’s underrated figureheads, in a well-documented, superbly produced and performed recording.

Dominy Clements 

Experience Classicsonline