Thomas’ Impressive American Mavericks

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

This is a terrific disc of music that few if anyone can perform more powerfully than Michael Tilson Thomas. He has long been an advocate of Henry Cowell’s fascinating output, and he presents here two remarkable works that still sound as freshly radical as when they were written. Synchrony began life as a ballet for Martha Graham, but was never performed on stage. Even aside from the use of Cowell’s characteristic tone clusters, it’s a very distinctive piece. It begins with a long, elaborate trumpet solo containing the main thematic material of the piece—it’s not exactly tonal, but it really is memorable. The music then proceeds to vary this idea while exploring a range of exotic, percussion-enriched textures. It’s strangely haunting, and sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard.

The Piano Concerto lasts less than 15 minutes, and compresses a lot of action into three movements marked Polyharmony, Tone Cluster, and Counter Rhythm. These may sound fearsome, but the music is consistently imaginative and fun to listen to. Pianist Jeremy Denk attacks the piece with plenty of gusto and charisma, and the result is wholly exhilarating. Speaking of which, Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra is an amazingly weird and wonderful inspiration that, once again, sounds like nothing else in the world of music. The combination of the organ’s coolness of expression with a wild range of percussive sonorities, plus Harrison’s characteristic Eastern-tinged, exotic harmonic and melodic palette, makes for an unforgettable, even disturbing experience. Paul Jacobs is the exceptional soloist.

In this company, Varèse’s Amériques sounds almost conventional. However loud and wild it gets, it still contains relatively “normal” melodic and motivic ideas (aside from the sirens, of course). Thomas and the SFSO play it magnificently, with ideal clarity of texture and amazing virtuosity, especially from the brass section. Indeed, this is one of the two or three best versions of the work available, right up there with the benchmark Dohnányi/Cleveland performance on Decca. The live sonics are some of the finest to come from this source, far more effective than in many of the orchestra’s Mahler recordings. I’m so happy that Thomas and his ensemble are doing what they ought to: preserving spectacular performances of non-traditional repertoire. Stunning.



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Recording Details:

Album Title: AMERICAN MAVERICKS
Reference Recording: Varèse: Dohnányi (Decca)


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