HENRY COWELL, A Continuum Portrait – Instrumental, Chamber and Vocal Music 1

by | May 17, 2005 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

HENRY COWELL, A Continuum Portrait – Instrumental, Chamber and Vocal
Music 1 = Piano Pieces; Quartet for Flute, Oboe, Cello &
Harpsichord; Three Anti-Modernist Songs; Suite for Violin and Piano;
Polyphonica for Small Orchestra; Irish Suite for String Piano and Small
Orchestra – Continuum (Charyl Seltzer & Joel Sachs, directors) –
Naxos American Classics 8.559192, 65:46 ****:

One of the most highly individual men in American music, Cowell – who
lived until 1965 – was a piano virtuoso, writer, teacher, lecturer,
organizer and composer. His unprecedented experimental attitude
resulted in some of the first use of palms, fists and entire arms on
the piano keyboard, as well as reaching in to play on the strings
directly. He also experimented with extremely advanced compositional
techniques, but somehow all of his music is quite accessible to the
average listener due to Cowell’s folklore-influenced melodiousness and
dedication to his Irish background. He had a deep belief in the unity
of world musical cultures and later in his career thru a series of
radio programs and recordings concentrated on increasing public
appreciation of the diversity of world music – which is presently
finally achieving some attention.

The last of the four Piano Pieces is titled Tiger and is probably the
most atonal of the composer’s works – filled with his tone clusters
played with fists and arms. Similar is the Irish Suite, which evidently
refers in “String Piano” to the performer going in and playing directly
on the strings – as in the first of the three movements, The Banshee.
Eerie sounds of the Banshee – an Irish family ghost – are produced by
scraping along the windings of a bass string with the fingernail. The
Quartet shows a more conservative style in which Cowell wrote later in
his life, but still displays his fresh approach to music. There are
historic recordings available of Cowell performing his own pieces, but
it is gratifying to hear them in up to date sonics in the committed
performances by this enthusiastic group of young performers.

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