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James Cohn: Symphonies Nos. 3, 4 & 8; Miniatures

Cohn / Slovak Radio Symphony Orch / Trevor
Release Date: 10/09/2012 
Label:  Msr   Catalog #: 1435   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  James Cohn
Conductor:  Kirk Trevor
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 19 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

COHN Symphonies Nos. 3, 4, and 8. Miniatures Kirk Trevor, cond; Slovak RSO MSR CLASSICS MS1435 (79:31)

Back in 35:5, I very favorably reviewed an MSR CD of the chamber music of James Cohn, and ended by stating my longing for recordings of his eight symphonies. Whether someone at MSR read that review and decided to give me an early Christmas present, I cannot say, but the fact remains that I’m now reviewing a CD of three of those eight symphonies. His Read more style="font-style:italic">Miniatures for Orchestra is also included for good measure on this generously filled disc.

Heard first is Cohn’s Symphony No. 3 in G Minor, written in 1955 and premiered by Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. From the outset of this work, the listener is engaged by Cohn’s appealing lyricism, as a solo clarinet spins out a simple melody over a pianissimo roll in the timpani. The melodic line is developed in various ways as other instruments take it over in a variety of forms (for example, the strings with interjections from the woodwinds). The composer’s use of modest forces (five woodwinds, three brass, and two percussion) doesn’t seem to limit his palette in the least, and indeed, he has used the same instrumentation in all of his subsequent orchestral works. This symphony reminds me a bit of another symphony in G Minor, that of English composer E. J. Moeran. Indeed there is something in Cohn’s symphony that evokes the pastoral music of many English composers. The symphony contains a scherzo in 5/8 meter, but this scherzo is of a gentle nature, and nothing like the in-your-face approach of, say, Shostakovich. The drama is ratcheted up a notch or two in the finale. The program notes describe this movement as angry and sad, but these emotions are filtered through Cohn’s overall easy-going musical aesthetic. The work ends abruptly with several short chords.

The Nine Miniatures began its life as a set of piano pieces, written for the late Polish pianist Maryla Jonas. She programmed some of them as encores on her recitals, and the composer intended as her portrait the “Mazurka” from the set. The style of the individual pieces contrasts a good bit between one movement and the next. After the gentle opening “Sunrise,” I was quite taken aback by the very jazzy “Boogie,” for instance. Other movements include “Freilach,” which reminds me of a Slavic hora, “Drag,” another jazz-influenced movement, and so on to the concluding “Sunset.” These are all exceedingly tuneful pieces, and would work as effectively on a pops concert as they do in a more symphonic setting.

Cohn’s Fourth Symphony might be considered his “Leningrad” Symphony as it was written in response to the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, initiated by the latter’s support of Poland’s efforts to gain autonomy from the Soviet Union. The work is consequently somewhat less tonally centered than its predecessor, even though the key is listed as A Major. As expected, martial rhythms and sonorities are prominent throughout, but the symphony has its lyrical side as well. Through the course of the work, the composer has attempted to depict the hopes and optimism of the people who were living through these tragic events, and the crushing military finale that ultimately confronted them. In this, he succeeds very well, although the work can be thoroughly enjoyed without any knowledge as to the events that inspired it.

The Symphony No. 8 begins with the rhythmic drive that characterizes the music of Bohuslav Martin?. From its outset, it is shot through with vital life-affirming energy that immediately uplifts the listener. It would seem well-nigh impossible to be depressed while listening to this work—or any of Cohn’s pieces, for that matter. In addition to its energy, the opening movement is rife with clever contrapuntal writing, helping to sustain interest throughout. Although the work is said to be in C Major, one will not hear much in this key except at the beginning and end of the outer movements. The second, slow movement begins with contrapuntal lines in the trumpet, horn, and bassoon. The tonality here seems to be more or less A Minor. The figuration, albeit not the tonality or melodic lines, seems inspired by Prokofiev, especially that found in the slow movements of his “Classical” Symphony. For the scherzo and finale, Cohn returns to a dramatic exercise, effortlessly tossing around motives among the various instruments. Indeed, motives, rather than long lines constitute the building blocks for most of this work. It seems to me to be the culminating work, not only in Cohn’s cycle of symphonies, but in all of the works of his that I’ve heard to this point. It made a profound impression on me, being the strongest among the consistently strong works in this collection.

Kirk Trevor and his Slovakian forces make a very good case for this music, with beautiful phrasing, intonation, generally good precision (I noted only a couple minor lapses in the finale of the Eighth Symphony), and recorded sound. This CD will be a treasured addition to the collection of those who are still in the camp of ingratiating tonal music, and don’t care whether the music they listen to is necessarily path-breaking. That group includes this reviewer, who maintains hope that the present CD is the harbinger of a complete cycle of the symphonic output of James Cohn. In the meantime, this disc will be a Want List contender.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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Works on This Recording

Symphony No. 3 in G minor by James Cohn
Conductor:  Kirk Trevor
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Modern 
Written: 1955 
Date of Recording: 2001 
Length: 23 Minutes 3 Secs. 
Miniatures (9), for piano (later orchestrated by the composer) by James Cohn
Conductor:  Kirk Trevor
Period: Modern 
Written: 1954 
Date of Recording: 2001 
Length: 14 Minutes 6 Secs. 
Symphony No. 4 in A major by James Cohn
Conductor:  Kirk Trevor
Period: Modern 
Written: 1956 
Date of Recording: 2001 
Length: 20 Minutes 6 Secs. 
Symphony No. 8 in C major by James Cohn
Conductor:  Kirk Trevor
Period: Modern 
Written: 1978 
Date of Recording: 2001 
Length: 18 Minutes 13 Secs. 

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