H Cowell: Variations for Orchestra; H Hanson: Before the Dawn, Op. 17; Loeffler: La Mort de Tintagiles; Ruggles: Evocations
Basque National Orchestra/Robert Trevino
Ondine ODE 1396-2 70:52 mins
A Finnish recording company, an orchestra from northern Spain: the obvious make-up these days for an album poking into some of American music’s less-visited corners. The galvanising force is Robert Trevino, the orchestra’s gifted Mexican-American conductor, who has shaped a programme of American musical landscapes both pleasurable and baffling. The first and best work is Charles Martin Loeffler’s La Mort de Tintagiles of 1897, a fruity symphonic poem inspired by a Maeterlinck play, soaked in the spirit of fin de sièclegloom, decadence and early Richard Strauss. This sweeps you up in its opening bars and never lets you go; a tribute both to Loeffler’s invention and the Basque forces’ lustre. In comparison, Howard Hanson’s Before the Dawn of 1920 (a first recording) can only appear craftsmanlike but insubstantial, and as vague in import as its title.
A bigger question is what Carl Ruggles’s Evocations evoke beyond the obdurate personality of its composer, who originally chiselled these four brusque pieces for piano, then dipped them in darkly effective orchestral colours in 1943. Then there’s Henry Cowell, no longer the modernist piano basher in his 1956 Variations for Orchestra, more of a wide-eyed musical traveller crossing all continents and conventions. Parts are unprepossessing, including the original theme; but it’s hard to resist the tuneful rumpus of the variation scored for piano and percussion, or the eerie magic of muted brass floating over softly discordant strings. Ondine’s vivid recording and the Basque orchestra’s flair keep you listening and pondering.