Saturday, December 27, 2014

Henry Cowell: A Continuum Portrait, Volume 1

This compendium of wide-ranging works from the long career of composer Henry Cowell is titled based on the excellent performances of the collective called Continuum, which has released several recordings on the Naxos labels over the year.

Cowell, whose Smithsonian Folkways release of his own piano performances has been spotlighted here before, was an experimental composer who drew heavily on folk music, including that of Ireland, where his forebears were from, as well as other places around the world, but was also someone who combined his modernism with beautiful melodies and a strong sense of harmony, too.

These were qualities he shared with his friend, Charles Ives, as the two men, a generation removed from one another, helped usher in a distinctively American form of modern composition.

This record begins with Continuum co-director Joel Sachs performing beautiful solo piano renditions of four piano pieces that feature Cowell's trademark tone clusters and strumming of the instrument's strings along with plaintive melodies (especially on the gorgeous "Deep Color") and interesting explorations of sound, including a wild "Tiger."

A modern take on the Baroque instrumentation of flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord is featured on a quartet composition with the other co-director Cheryl Seltzer on the keyboard instrument.  A highly memorable melody and a fine collective performance by the ensemble are of note.

Humor and satire mark Cowell's "Three Anti-Modernist Songs" with Seltzer on piano and Ellen Lang, an excellent mezzo-soprano.   On "A Sharp Where You'd Expect a Natural," the lyric includes the admonition that "no rule observe but the exceptional" and that when it comes to sequencing the music "which [bar] follows which, you really needn't mind."  

With "Hark! From the Pit a Fearsome Sound," Cowell plays with the concerns of concertgoers unnerved by modern music "that makes your blood run cold" with "symphonic cyclones," a "muted tuba's dismal groan," and fancifully fictional instruments like the "sarrusophone," "tonitruone," and "heckelphone."  There's even a nod to Richard Strauss and his modern form of opera.

Finally, Cowell defends Stravinsky in "Who Wrote This Fiendish 'Rite of Spring'?"  The lyric is written from the perspective of a horrified attendee, presumably at the Paris premiere in 1913, who cries "what right had he to write the thing / against our helpless ears to fling / its crash, clash, cling, clang, bing, bank, bing?" and asks why the composer couldn't write bird-like melodies and "proper" harmony.

A contemplative and touching violin and piano suite by Seltzer and Mia Wu follows and is beautifully performed, as is a short Polyphonica for a small orchestra.  Finally, there is the Irish Suite, with Seltzer's piano and the orchestra conducted by Sachs performing the piece quietly and subtly.  This is a bit surprising, especially with "The Banshee," which Cowell played on the aforementioned Smithsonian Folkways recording with far greater volume, power and menace, as the strings are scratched and strummed to mimic the mythical banshee creature.

Henry Cowell was a true original, whose ideas of experimenting with sound, harmony and sources were exceptional in his time and remain so today.  This recording by Continuum captures many facets of the composer's long and varied career and the group and Naxos are to be given kudos for excellent work.

No comments:

Post a Comment