Classical Music Review: New Releases

Looking To The East. Lou Harrison: Suite for Violin, Piano & Small Orchestra (Anahid Ajemian, violin; Maro Ajemian, piano; Leopold Stokowski and his Orchestra). Henry Cowell: Homage to Iran for Violin & Piano (Leopold Avakian, violin; Mitchell Andrews, piano; Basil Bahar, Persian drum). Colin McPhee: Nocturne for Chamber Orchestra (Hessian Radio Symphony Orchestra; David Van Vactor, conductor). Alan Hovhaness: Koke No Niwa (Moss Garden) for English Horn, Percussion, and Harp, Op. 181 (Melvin Kaplan, English horn; Walter Rosenberger & Elden Bailey, percussion; Ruth Negri, harp; Alan Hovhaness, conductor); The Holy City for Trumpet, Large Chime in A, Harp and String Orchestra, Op. 218 (Elgar Howarth, trumpet; The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Arthur Bennett Lipkin, conductor);  Triptych, Op. 100 (Benita Valente, soprano; Members of the Bamberg Symphony; Bavarian Radio Singers; Alfredo Antonini, conductor).  CRI CD 836 (76'29).

This is a marvelous collection of recordings, mostly from the 1960's, of works by American composers inspired by music of Asia and the Middle East.  Henry Cowell (1897-1965) was a pioneer in this type of music and his output is full of pieces like the Homage to Iran recorded here.  Cowell did not quote ethnographic material, but rather he would, as he put it, "pay tribute to the style and spirit" of the music.  Thus, Homage combines Iranian percussion with violin and piano, merging Western compositional practice with Iranian scales and melodies.  Cowell learned about Iranian music firsthand from a three-month visit in the winter of 1956 when he was the guest of Radio Tehran.  "The musical cultures of Asia have remained monodic in theory," he wrote, "but they are often polyphonic in actual performing practice... In one of the most commonly heard musical styles the instruments (with or without a vocalist) and the drum take turns leading the melodic improvisation... A second melody instrument then follows the leader more or less in canon."

While Cowell was an internationalist, with compositions based on musics from cultures as far flung as Iceland and Japan, Lou Harrison and Colin McPhee were both chiefly influenced by the gamelan music of Indonesia.  McPhee, who lived in Bali for several years in the 1930's (recounted in his book A House in Bali), used the traditional resources of the European orchestra to recreate what he called a "nuclear gamelan" by means of piano, glockenspiel, xylophone and marimba.  Nocturne is typical of his Balinese-style music.  Over a gentle percussive accompaniment, a flute plays a soothing pentatonic melody.  Lou Harrison's Suite is more varied and exotic sounding.  Harrison has long been a promoter of gamelan orchestras and along with his collaborator Bill Colvig he has constructed several "American gamelans," using instruments built by Colvig to emulate Balinese timbres and tunings.  The suite recorded here in a splendid performance by Leopold Stokowski originally released on RCA uses traditional Western instruments in a concertante for violin and piano.  It's a striking, varied piece brimming with "grace and joyousness," to use Peggy Glanville-Hicks's description.

The works by the indefatigable Alan Hovhaness are less country specific but contain the same "Asian" elements as the works above, simplicity of melody and a modal approach to harmony. The Holy City features a marvelous performance by Elgar Howarth and the Triptych is dominated by the clear soprano of Benita Valente.  Indeed, the level of performance of all the works on this disk is amazing, largely due to the efforts of CRI founder Oliver Daniel (1911-1990) for whom this CD is something of a tribute (the liner notes open with a short biography of Daniel, who among many other accomplishments oversaw the first recording of Ives's Fourth Symphony by Stokowski).

The pieces collected here are from a particularly appealing strain of American music.  Recordings are bright and clear and betray nothing of their vintage beyond an analog warmth.  This release is a real treat.

Tony Gualtieri
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