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Charles Martin LOEFFLER (1861-1935)
La Mort de Tintagiles Op.6 (1897) [25:48]
Carl RUGGLES (1876-1971)
Evocations (1943) [10:13]
Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
Before the Dawn, Op.17 (1920) [6:44]
Henry COWELL (1897-1965)
Variations for Orchestra (1956) [19:21]
Delphine Dupuy (viola d’amore) (Loeffler)
Basque National Orchestra/Robert Trevino
rec. September 2020, Miramon, Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain
ONDINE ODE1396-2 [63:06]

This is a most enterprising disc, consisting of rarely-encountered music by four prominent American composers, active from the last quarter of the 19th century, through to the middle of the 20th century.

I had encountered the music of Carl Ruggles only once before, in Michael Tilson Thomas’ DG recording of Sun Treader, a work of great dramatic contrasts. It would seem that his personality was not a particularly grateful one, “with his caustic remarks, casual racism and stead use of profanity”, to quote from the CD booklet. He produced only little over an hour’s music in his 95 years, preferring to paint instead.

He employed a compositional method of “dissonant counterpoint”, writing atonal music that avoided serialism. Evocations is somewhat less dramatic than Sun Treader, although the orchestra is used with similar abandon, and is in four short movements in the orchestral version presented here. Given his compositional techniques, it is hardly necessary for me to state that Evocations is not replete with tunes that I could whistle, however it is said to evoke the personalities of four close friends, and one can easily detect the contrasts between those personalities. He was a painstakingly slow composer, and the piece’s ten minutes’ worth of music took him six years to write.

If any of the pieces recorded here disappointed me, it was the orchestral work by Howard Hanson, Before the Dawn.  He composed it as a Prix de Rome entry, and it did indeed win him three years in Italy. While it is sumptuously orchestrated, Hanson did not manage to imbue it with the sort of lyricism that is such a feature of his first four symphonies. Having said that, it is undoubtedly easy on the ear, and the orchestra responds enthusiastically, providing waves of hyper-Romantic sound.

Henry Cowell suffered from the intolerance of homosexuality so prevalent in society in the 1930’s and later. He admitted to performing multiple “unnatural” acts with a teenage boy, and in 1937 was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Thanks to the advocacy of his future wife, he was released after four years and pardoned in 1942. His early music was “ultra” avant-garde – he would pioneer the “tone-cluster” technique, whereby a pianist would use forearms to produce massive chords based on seconds (secundal chords). He became so well known in avant-garde circles that Bela Bartok contacted him and asked permission to employ the technique in his own works.

His Variations for Orchestra is a late work, and is by no means difficult. It opens with a gently flowing movement which soon metamorphoses into a representation of the Indonesian gamelan, which reminds us that Cowell was very much influenced by what we would now call “world music”. Indeed, sounds which I would describe as tintinnabulation, soon appear, morphing into colourful percussion sections, succeeded by lyrically flowing woodwinds supported by whispering strings. The whole work is fascinating, and makes me wonder what is to be found in his twenty symphonies.

The CD opens with the longest piece, Loeffler’s La Mort de Tintagiles. This is the most Impressionistic work on the disc, and made a strong impact on me. It is for orchestra with viola d’amore obbligato, and the composer himself became a virtuoso on the instrument. It is a composition where the influences of Debussy and Wagner coalesce to form a most luscious symphonic poem, wherein the viola lends its characteristic sweet and warm sound.

I have thoroughly enjoyed encountering the works on this CD. They are very well played and excellently recorded, with a most detailed booklet produced to a high standard.

Jim Westhead



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