Michael Tilson Thomas, cond; Jeremy Denk (pn
); Paul Jacobs (org
); San Francisco S
SFS MEDIA 821936-0056-2 (SACD: 73:36)
Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra.
Let’s not beat around the bush here—this is a marvelously entertaining program of (for the most part) still-neglected American modernist music, performed with gusto. Others will have to comment on the quality of the SACD recording, but coming through my modest stereo equipment, it sounded just fine. A few particulars may be in order for the uninitiated. When spoken of at all, Henry Cowell typically receives begrudging acknowledgement of his musical innovations—including the prepared piano and forays into what is now popularly known as “world music”—while precious few of his scores are heard. Although it’s true that many of his experimental works are uneven, there are those that contain a unique vision and a fascinating soundscape. Two of them are represented here. The Piano Concerto (1928) is full of Cowell’s patented clusters and “polyharmonic” chord combinations, as well as Lisztian flourishes and hyper-driven rhythms, in an angular, tonally shifting environment that is all but bursting at the seams.
(1930), written for but never choreographed by Martha Graham, morphs between episodes of melodic tension, modalities, and bustling urgency. Lou Harrison’s Organ Concerto (1972-73) is a rambunctious romp through clattering pitched and unpitched percussion and majestic, roistering organ. Finally, Varèse’s
(1918-22) is his clamorous New World symphony, part wild savagery and part urban sprawl.
Michael Tilson Thomas has been a champion of adventurous music like this since his days as America’s heir apparent to Leonard Bernstein, and he brings a stylistic aptness and rhythmic security specific to each of these different works. Which is not to say that previous recordings should now be dismissed outright. There have been several fine recordings, including the well-gauged, vivid version conducted by Christopher Lyndon-Gee (Naxos). For his part, Tilson Thomas gives the music free rein, so that noise and nuance get equal time, and details ring out. In Harrison’s slam-bang concerto, he captures the spirit, if not the ultra-close rattle and crusty percussiveness, of the 1975 recording led by William Kraft (Crystal). And I have a special fondness for the old William Strickland/Polish National Radio Orchestra (CRI) account of
. Whoever the Polish trumpeter was, he ripped into the long introductory solo with a jazzy assertiveness that to this day brings to mind Maynard Ferguson; San Francisco’s unnamed trumpeter is fluid, note-perfect, but doesn’t wail. Where Strickland offered bounce, bite, and atmosphere, Tilson Thomas focuses on shaped dynamics and phrasing, creating a greater sense of consistency. Both soloists are impeccable; obviously the organist Paul Jacobs is not to be confused with the late pianist Paul Jacobs. My only complaint is the annoying applause that they left after each piece—it should have been removed. But that small flaw doesn’t prevent this disc from being highly recommended.