Cowell: Chamber works

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Cowell
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Cowell
WORKS: Chamber works
PERFORMER: Continuum
CATALOGUE NO: 8.559193/8.559192
Though he’s paid lipservice as an important American pioneer, we don’t hear enough of Henry Cowell’s music. The occasional recording of cluster-chord piano pieces, highly experimental early chamber compositions, or apparently folksy-naive late ones don’t give much of a coherent picture. These two new discs from the New York-based ensemble Continuum give a useful survey across his career, showing how this multifarious invention is all ultimately interrelated in a musical sensibility that is as inclusive as Charles Ives’s, yet strikingly unlike him in its idioms.

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In addition to a generous selection of the famously innovative piano pieces using fists, palms, forearms or directly attacking the strings, they present intricate chromatic explorations such as Vestiges or Polyphonica for chamber orchestra which would superficially seem to place Cowell in the orbit of Berg and Schoenberg – figures (along with Stravinsky and Strauss) upbraided in the hilarious Anti-Modernist Songs. Yet such works as the 1925 Suite for violin and piano, which marries an almost Baroque solo line to a cluster accompaniment, or the coolly jazzy Casual Developments for clarinet, or the haunting Homage to Iran for violin, piano and Persian wood drum, suggest Cowell wasn’t so much a modernist as a man in search of timeless essences. Combining three of his most radical piano pieces with a chamber orchestra in the Irish Suite, he creates a hallucinatory sound-world at once terrifying (‘The Banshee’) and innocently sentimental (‘Fairy bells’, no less!) with no sense of incongruity.

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These always approachable pieces are consistently performed by Continuum with rare affection and a fine sense of style, nowhere more so than their wonderfully sculptured reading of the late Quartet for flute, oboe, cello and harpsichord – a classic that seems to stand right outside time. Calum MacDonald