COWELL: Symphonies: No. 7; No. 16, “Icelandic”; Variations for Orchestra; Scenario; Wedding Anniversary Music; Duet and Andante. CRESTON: Piano Trio. LUENING: Trio No. 1. CHIHARA: Elegy.

COWELL:  Symphonies:  No. 7; No. 16, “Icelandic”.  Variations for Orchestra.  William Strickland conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra;  Icelandic Symphony Orchestra; Polish National Radio Orchestra.  CRI CD-740 [ADD]; 68:41. 

COWELL:  Scenario; Wedding Anniversary Music; Duet and Andante.  CRESTON:  Piano Trio.  LUENING:  Trio No. 1.  CHIHARA:  Elegy.  Mirecourt Trio.  MUSIC & ARTS CD-934 [DDD/ADD]; 61:56. 

Record companies seem to be making some limited efforts to acknowledge the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Henry Cowell, which occurred in March of this year.  One assumes that these two modestly successful releases are prompted by the occasion.

Cowell belongs– with Partch,. Cage, and Harrison– to that group of Californian mavericks who played such a significant role in twentieth-century American music.  Cowell’s own contribution was so far-reaching– he was a veritable one-man music industry– that it is difficult to summarize.  Just  to touch on a few high points:  As an editor, publisher, critic, and general musical statesman, this exuberantly open-minded, elfin fellow was a positive constructive force, finding value in new music of all kinds, during a period in American music notable for hostile divisiveness and competitiveness; he was the teacher of both John Cage and Lou Harrison; he was close friend, colleague, advocate, and first biographer of Charles Ives; he was perhaps the first American composer to promote the idea of “world music,” a fusion of sounds and techniques from musics of all cultures; he composed more than 900 works of his own that drew upon an enormous range of styles and functions (the list of works published in The New Grove Dictionary of American Music is staggering to behold–indeed, Richard Strauss’s oft-quoted response when asked how he composes– “as the cow gives milk”– applies perhaps even more aptly to Cowell).

Cowell’s fertile compositional career falls roughly into three phases, or “periods.”  The first, lasting until the mid 1930s, was characterized by an emphasis on experimental techniques; the second, continuing until about 1950, concentrated on folk-related styles and materials–much, though not all, of Anglo-American origin; the third reveals a greater interest in Asian materials, while attempting some integration of vernacular and experimental interests.  Contributing to a general sense of confusion about Cowell, even among fairly sophisticated listeners (who but they even knows of him?), is the fact that his reputation is generally based on the works of the first period, while most of those pieces that are heard at all today stem from the second period; the third-period music is now rarely played, though it enjoyed some recorded representation during the 1950s and 60s.

One of the unifying characteristics of Cowell’s musical persona is an impish sense of fun, an almost childlike delight in “trying things out.”  Though his benign temperament and artless lack of pretense may be detected in virtually all his music, not much else can:  In other words, there is very little “content” or “personality” to any of it.  The music of the first period primarily serves to showcase various innovative techniques; the pieces themselves are “examples” more than “works.”  The music of the second period is exceedingly straightforward in its use of folk styles and materials; virtually nothing is “done” to it to give it a personal stamp.  It is thus pleasant, but often unmemorable.  It is in some of the music from the third period that Cowell seemed to attempt an integrated aesthetic statement. The new CRI disc highlights three works from that period by reissuing performances that were available on LP some 30-40 years ago.

Cowell’s first symphony dates from 1918; his nineteenth from 1965, the year of his death.  The last fourteen of them may be attributed to the third period, when he seemed to find in the framework of a symphony of 20-25 minutes duration a convenient vessel through which to offer his quite palatable, stylistically balanced multicultural blends of the various scales and melodic forms, timbral effects, and experimental devices that held his fancy over the years.  Of the seven Cowell symphonies with which I am familiar, No. 7 is a pleasant and representative example, whose overall layout conveys something of the way he approached the medium:  The first movement opens with a weighty chorale, whose diatonic melody is couched in some very dissonant harmony; this material is set off by a lively square-dance-like tune.  The second movement is a sort of intermezzo,  with a pentatonic-flavored melody whose accompaniment suggests the metallic percussion music of Indonesia.  The third movement is in the manner of an Irish jig– a favorite scherzo genre of Cowell’s– with episodic material reminiscent of Mexican dance music.  The fourth movement returns to the opening chorale material, which breaks into a Handelian fugato that culminates triumphantly in a rather bombastic, timpani-thumping peroration.

The Variations for Orchestra is, along with the Symphony No. 11, “Seven Rituals of Music,” my favorite work of Cowell’s.  This preference can be attributed to the perception that both are especially well balanced and integrated portfolios of the composer’s stylistic palette.  The Variations, composed in 1956 (and revised three years later), are based on a twelve-tone theme, although this is not by any stretch of the imagination a serial work.  But the atonality of the theme lends it a neutral identity all the more promising for variations, which– typically– capture a broad stylistic range, from non-Western techniques to tone-clusters, polyrhythms, and atonal triadicism, topped off by a fugue.  In addition, the work is something of a “concerto for orchestra,” highlighting individual solo instruments and small groupings within the orchestra.  It is all quite entertaining, with no jarring lapses in taste.  And, somewhat more than is usual for Cowell, the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Cowell’s “Icelandic Symphony” was composed in 1962, on commission from the Icelandic government.  As one might expect, the work is based largely on elements drawn from traditional Icelandic music.  Some of it, the crude, rough-hewn chorale harmonizations in particular, is quite attractive.  The slow third movement is especially pretty, although it is rather strongly reminiscent of Ravel’s popular Pavane.

The chief liability of this CD lies in the quality of the performances and, to a lesser extent, the sound quality.  Worst of all is the rendition by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, who sounded pretty poor in 1963, although I believe they have improved a good deal since then.  The ad hoc recording group known as the Vienna Symphony Orchestra wasn’t much better during the late 1950s when the Seventh Symphony was first committed to disc (on the MGM label).  These readings are not just imprecise, but they also lack any finesse in matters of phrasing, balance of ensemble, or tonal blending.  The result is that much of the music sounds quite banal, and it is hard to determine just how much this impression is attributable to the performances.  Parts of the Icelandic Symphony sound like death marches, but I think the orchestra is the problem.  The Polish National Radio Orchestra, who play the Variations, are a bit better than the other two, but not by a wide margin.  And the sound quality of each performance must be described as primitive, relative to its respective recording date.  All in all, I doubt that this disc will win new converts to Cowell’s music, but it will serve as a stop-gap for listeners who are already interested and want to acquaint themselves with these particular pieces.

The Music and Arts disc is another in the Mirecourt Trio’s fine series of recordings that present highly polished readings of 20th-century American music for piano trio and similar combinations.  Cowell’s Scenario is a 14-minute piano quartet that substitutes a second violin (played by Albert Muenzer) for a viola.  Composed in 1915, while Cowell was studying with his chief theoretical and aesthetic mentor, Charles Seeger, and was also writing some of his notorious experimental piano pieces, Scenario had to wait more than 75 years for its first performance.  In truth, the piece is quite a surprise:  a three-movement work in a very European, chromatic late-romantic vein.  Yet aside from a few awkward moments, and a few quirky ones as well, the work shows more grace and subtlety than one might have ever expected from Cowell at this time in his life.

The other Cowell pieces on this disc are among the almost inconceivable number of occasional pieces that he wrote for his wife and other intimates.  Wedding Anniversary Music, a three-minute piece for two violins and cello composed in 1957, features some nice modal polyphony.  The 1962 Andante and the 1965 Duet (among his last pieces)– both for violin and cello– are pretty inconsequential as music.

Otto Luening died about a year ago, at the age of 96.  His Trio No. 1 was written in 1921, after he returned from eight years of study in Europe with, among others, Ferruccio Busoni.  The Trio is comparable to the Cowell Scenario in a number of ways.  Both are early works, of approximately the same duration, and are redolent of European styles, although the mature music of both composers is notably devoid of such trappings.  Both pieces reveal considerable talent and skill, but also a certain quirkiness, suggesting that neither composer felt fully comfortable and natural with the subtleties, shadings, and implications of which the late-romantic language was capable during the early 1900s.  Luening’s, clearly the more sophisticated work, reveals an “off-kilter,” almost parodistic quality, created by passages of polytonality and other harmonic techniques that seem a little incongruous when juxtaposed with rich late-romantic textures, although other moments reveal a touching poignancy.

Introducing the music of Paul Creston– an Italian-American who never abandoned a harmonic language derived from turn-of-the-century French music–into this context is also a little incongruous, although, in fact, Cowell was one of Creston’s earliest and most articulate champions.  His Piano Trio, the most ambitious chamber work of his later years, was commissioned by the Mirecourt Trio in 1979 and recorded by them the following year.  Creston’s chamber music– quite different in its aesthetic identity from his orchestral music — is characterized by classical lines and Impressionist harmony.  This description may suggest Ravel, but Creston’s music tends to be earthy and exuberant, rather than exquisitely ethereal, bringing it closer to, say, Jean Francaix or Francis Poulenc.  The best of these works, such as the Sonata for Saxophone and Piano (1939), the Suite for Flute, Viola, and Piano (1952), and the four-movement Trio presented here display a warmth, a joyful, energetic vitality, and a consistently high level of craftsmanship in an idiom that  remained relatively unchanged for some 45 years.

Paul Chihara’s Elegy dates from 1975 and is a stylistic hodgepodge that adds nothing to the contents of the disc.