Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Len Mullenger:

HENRY COWELL 1897-1965 Symphony No 7 *(1952) 25.58 Symphony No 16 Icelandic** (1962) 24.59 Variations for Orchestra ***(1956) 18.34  *Vienna SO ** Iceland SO ***Polish National RSO all conducted by William Strickland rec, 1966, 1964, 1961 mono recordings apart from Variations CRI AMERICAN MASTERS CD740 [68.41]


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Cowell, one of the archetypal 'bad boys' of music was fantastically prolific. There are more than 1000 works and they are not all 'of a piece' stylistically. For sure there are some audaciously modernistic works in which tone clusters are evident but his modernism seems to have been moderated by his contact in the 1940s with what we now call 'world music'. From thenceforward he leaned towards a more accessible style without losing his tangy and rangy spirit of defiance.

He wrote a large number of symphonies. After the Third The Gaelic (1942) there were 17 more before his death.

I cannot better the notes' description of the first movement of Symphony No. 16: 'sweetly dissonant'. This is succeeded by a muscular wide open fugue in which the recording of the strings suffer the audio famine associated with a 35 year old tape. The third movement has something in common with Ravel's Pavane and the next movement adopts an antique pastiche style similar to E J Moeran's orchestral Serenade. The finale continues the atmosphere of antique dances, with carefree strings. The archaism reminded me of Alan Hovhaness in his grand baroque moments. The symphony ends very broadly with recollections of the earlier movements.

The Seventh Symphony is in four movements: I in which a Back-Stokowski 'kolossal' fugue meets a Finzian string paean and village folk violin. II resounds with a gamelan ostinato over which a very attractive velour string theme rings out. III evokes Irish jigs and reels, uillean pipes, hoofbeats and Western Americana. The finale flows with vitality - a high and wide maestoso.

Synchrony runs counter to the more conservative trend. String anthems, jerky flute themes, skittering strings, strange loose snared drum noises, jazzy xylophone rushes, oriental twists, cool pastorals and a soaring solo violin jostle and interact.

The CRI American Masters series (reissued from LP) is handsomely packaged and the notes are always good. In this case they are provided by H Wiley Hitchcock. Recommended listening for those wishing to explore Cowell - a composer of many facets and, I strongly suspect, with surprises yet in store for us.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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