From the cover art adorning this terrific release, you would think that America (or the United States bit of it) was a land characterized by construction cranes, graffiti, and brown leather jackets, none of which has much to do with the music on the disc itself. Sorry, I just had to make that point. Nationalistic stereotypes are generally loathsome, especially when the four works featured here form a study in diversity and variety. Let’s take them in the order of appearance.
Loeffler: La Mort de Tintagiles (1897). The earliest work here, this is a big, juicy, Straussian tone poem–except that Strauss was still in the midst of writing his own big, juicy tone poems (Ein Heldenleben would appear a year later), so give Loeffler some credit for finding his own voice with some degree of independence. The story comes from a weird marionette play by Maurice Maeterlinck (of Pelléas et Melisande fame) about an evil queen who wants to murder Tintagiles, as she has the rest of his family, so she does. That’s it. There’s also a character named Aglovane, which sounds like something you spread on your lawn to keep down weeds. The music is gorgeous: dark and fuzzy, aided in no small degree by the dusky tone of a solo viola d’amore.
Ruggles: Evocations (1943). Carl Ruggles lived forever (1876-1971) wrote a tiny handful of pieces, and embodied the very notion of a “cantankerous old coot.” Evocations exists in both piano and orchestral versions. Like all of his music, it’s basically an essay it extended chromaticism, which is the same thing as saying it’s atonal. Cast in four brief movements, all of them slow-ish, and lasting some ten minutes, it’s a curiously intense, powerful, craggy experience. Why it works is anyone’s guess, but it does, and it’s not supposed to be endearing. It just exists, and you deal with it.
Hanson: Before the Dawn (1920). Hanson neglected this early tone poem, which won him the Prix-de-Rome, and which receives its world premiere recording here. It’s the weakest work on the disc, being rather tepidly melodic and just plain bland. It does what you expect it to, rising to a theoretically impassioned climax, before arriving at a perfunctory and most unsatisfying ending. It’s good to have it documented, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hear it as often as the rest of this program. Happily, it’s only a bit shy of seven minutes long, and it does make for a pleasant little interlude between the Ruggles and Cowell works if you take in the entire disc at a sitting.
Cowell: Variations for Orchestra (1956). Vastly prolific, often experimental, and nearly always fascinating, Henry Cowell’s music is shamefully neglected. His orchestral variation feature a typically eclectic range of usual and unusual sounds, including some very intriguing percussion sonorities. The theme is a bit of declamatory melody that you may or may not hear in the ensuing variations, and it doesn’t matter a bit. The music keeps you listening as it takes you on a colorful, twenty-minute journey through a universe of titillating timbres and evocative episodes. We badly need a Cowell revival.
The performances here are all splendid. As you may have surmised from their excellent previous Ravel CD, Robert Trevino and the Basque National Orchestra seem to have a great thing going: an enterprising conductor leading a talented and enthusiastic ensemble with both swagger and sensitivity to burn. Ondine’s fine sonics let you hear everything that you should, in a warm, well-balanced acoustic frame. You’ll love this.