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Critical Acclaim: Continuum

The MHS Review 381 Vol. 11, NO. 3 • 1987

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Kyle Gann, Fanfare (January/February 1987)

Nevertheless, everyone any interest at all in American musical innovation will want this endearing album in his col­lection without fail.


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For all his pionering genius and the incredible debt all American musicians owe him, Henry Cowell's creative output was remarkable uneven in quality. This collection, however, consisting, except for a few piano pieces, , of works which haven't appeared on disc before, contains not one work that is less than inspired, and usually audacious. The Set of Five is especially delightful. Its opening measures are absolutely arresting: violin and piano state a broad, noble melody in perfect late-romantic manner, but accompanied at double tempo by a quirky set of metallic and wood percussion, all sounding like a gamelan group that decided to crash somebody's chamber recital. This playfulness runs through the perpetuum mobile with xylophone in the Allegro, the gentl waltz or the Andante, and finally culminates in the drum-and-piano fireworks of the vigoroso finalae. Cowell's often romantic phrasing sounds out of place in 1952, especially in the consonantly canonic treatment of the two melody instruments; but ahistorically considered, its anachronisms vanish into one of the loveliest extant examples of a marriage of Eastern means and Western ends.

Am I wrong to quibble about releasing The Banshee and Paris 1924 again when so many Cowell works lay unrecorded? Cheryl Seltzer's playing is less forceful than Robert Miller's in his recor­ding of those pieces, and yet her performances are dryer, less impressionistic, and more Ivesian than either those of Miller or Doris Hays, and are quite to my taste. Paris 1924 and What's This make her phenomenal dexterity perfectly clear. A more remarkable find, though, is Elegie of 1941, which makes probably the most effective use of the inside of the piano of any piece ever written; in fact the liner notes claim that the piece is played entirely on the strings, though one ear-catching unison melody sounds as though played by plucking and key-board striking simultaneously. The two songs, "Sunset" and "Rest," will delight those in love with the dissonant side of Ives' song output. Given the absence of texts (by Wallingford Riegger's daughter), I could wish that Raymond Murcell's diction were a touch clearer; still, if his tone is a little closed, his vocal power complements the songs' rugged accompaniments.

The performance of the Set of Five is charming, Marilyn Dubow's violining sweetly phrased and well-tuned. The recording could stand to be a little clearer and more present in the piano work, and the pressing is not entirely free from hiss and tiny scratches. Nevertheless, everyone any interest at all in American musical innovation will want this endearing album in his col­lection without fail.

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