James Cohn: Symphonies; Variations

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 8

James Cohn (b. 1928) studied with Roy Harris, Wayne Barlow, and Bernard Wagenaar, not that this means anything. You may detect a bit of Harris in his fondness for long-limbed, unaccompanied melody, but for the most part he sounds sort of like Hindemith or Honegger without the counterpoint. This is not exactly a recipe for success. Both of these symphonies, which sound remarkably similar despite the nearly 20 years that separates them, contain some interesting ideas (the slow movement of the Seventh, for example) that stubbornly fail to sustain interest. Cohn wanders from one instrumental group to the next with a curious unwillingness to exploit the full range of the forces at his disposal, and this weakens the suggestive power of his ideas very quickly. The colors change, but the textures remain thin, the harmony somewhat glum. The Variations on “The Wayfaring Stranger” work better if only because Cohn starts with a good tune, but that melody remains the most captivating thing about the piece.

The performances are a little rough-edged but do the music sufficient justice, and the sonics are decent. These two symphonies, serious though they may be (indeed, that may be part of the problem), just aren’t special. This is all the more surprising considering that it was a pleasure to recommend two discs of Cohn’s works on XLNT when they appeared a few years ago. Perhaps he’s simply not as comfortable working with large forces, or with the symphonic genre–the chamber and other music on those prior releases was often delightful. If you can still find them and want to sample Cohn’s work, start there.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: none

JAMES COHN - Symphonies Nos. 2 & 7; Variations on "The Wayfaring Stranger;" Waltz in D

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