Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is something of a sequel to the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra's previous Henry Cowell disc, reviewed about a year and a half ago (Fanfare 17:2, pp. 211-12). At that time, I offered an overview of Cowell's active and varied career and a general assessment of enormous compositional output, so I will restrict my comments here to the specific works involved.
The most notable item here is the rarely heard and never-before-recorded Concerto Grosso in five movements, scored for solo flute, oboe, clarinet, cello, and harp, with string orchestra. Composed in late 1963, it is one of Cowell's last major works. However, its twenty-six-minute duration should not be taken as indication of aesthetic weight, as the Concerto Grosso is an utterly benign diversion. Though the hymn with which it opens suggests Hovhaness at his most fervent, this is its most intense moment; the work quickly relaxes into a familiar pattern in which Anglo-American folklike elements alternate with intimations of the Far East, with a Cakewalk thrown in, all of which periodically collide with certain compositional idiosyncrasies, in this case involving seventh-chords in various guises. As often in Cowell's music, the result is pleasantly innocuous, yet strangely synthetic and flat in both affect and effect.
The disc also features the tenth in Cowell's series of eighteen Hymns and Fuguing Tunes, the composer's neo-Colonial American variant of the prelude and fugue. Dating from 1955, this is probably the best known of the group, thanks to Neville Marriner's widely circulated Argo recording from the 1970s, with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. While No. 10 is more harmonically and contrapuntally involved than most of the others, its expressive character is rather gray and neutral.
Air and Scherzo for alto saxophone and chamber orchestra is another late work and a nice one it is. The Air has a vaguely Bach-like, improvisatory quality, while the Scherzo becomes, as it often does in Cowell's hands, a jig.
Speaking of which, the Fiddler's Jig is an irresistible two-minute confection. It is, in a way, Cowell's answer to Percy Grainger.
Presenting the composer at his most amiable, none of these pieces suggests any aim other than to entertain; nary a cloud darkens the sky. The performances are all very good as well. Oboist Lucarelli and saxophonist Louie are excellent. My only criticism is that the woodwinds in the central portion of the Concerto Grosso's opening movement could be more smoothly coordinated.
-- Walter Simmons, FANFARE [3/1995]