Cowell: Piano Concerto; Four Irish Tales; Three Legends; Sinfonietta

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LABELS: Col legno
WORKS: Piano Concerto; Four Irish Tales; Three Legends; Sinfonietta
PERFORMER: Stefan Litwin (piano); Saarbrücken RSO/Michael Stern
Henry Cowell is probably still better known from the pages of the textbooks than for his compositions. The titles of the movements of the Piano Concerto indicate some of his preoccupations: ‘Polyharmony’ – music going on in several keys at the same time; ‘Tone Cluster’ – groups of notes played with the flat of the hand or the forearm on the piano; and ‘Counter Rhythm’ – different rhythms going along simultaneously. The danger, which Cowell never completely avoids, is that the harmonies become overcrowded and grey, and melodic lines get blurred at the edges when widened into clusters. I get the feeling that Cowell basically thought tonally, and in quite a folksy style, and then deliberately muddied the waters. In Four Irish Tales, the result is like Percy Grainger pushed to the extreme, with Celtic melodies ‘dished up’ to the accompaniment of an astringent polytonal gravy. The slow movement of the Concerto piccolo, with its simple solo lines against a chordal accompaniment, is a welcome exception. Elsewhere, even in the solo pieces, Cowell can’t resist obscuring a simple tune with a bludgeoning fistful of notes, and although the performances are committed, a small amount of this music goes a long way. Martin Cotton