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American Mavericks
Henry COWELL (1897-1965)
Synchrony (1930) [13.38]
Piano Concerto (1928) [14.53] *
Lou HARRISON (1917-2003)
Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra (1972-3) [23.00] **
Edgard VARÈSE (1883-1965)
Amériques (1927 version) [22.02]
Jeremy Denk (piano) *; Paul Jacobs (organ) **
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. Davies Symphony Hall San Francisco – Synchrony: 8-10 December 2010, other pieces: 3-17 March 2012
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY 821936-0056-2-0 [73.23]

My first reaction to this CD was admiration for the enterprising choice of repertoire. These are all live performances, so one must envy the San Franciscans. Cowell and Harrison are far more written-about than performed, while Varèse's two works for large orchestra – Arcana and Amériques – are also rarities for economic reasons: Amériques is scored for 125 players. Varèse's pieces for smaller ensemble are more established in that repertoire, but surely we should have a chance to hear some Cowell and Harrison occasionally. After all both were once regarded as important modernist figures.
 
The single-movement Synchrony was originally intended as part of a multi-media work for Martha Graham, but the project was aborted. It begins with an extended, beautifully played solo for muted trumpet. The player's name really should have been included in the credits. This is an episodic piece with some reminiscences of Stravinsky and Bartók, but it is engaging, fresh and enjoyable, so why has Cowell been completely banished? The Piano Concerto, brilliantly played by Jeremy Denk, is an imaginative 3-movement work. Cowell's trademark tone clusters abound in the lively opening movement, Polyharmony, which grabbed my attention with its opening gesture and held on to it. In the sombre central movement - actually entitled Tone Cluster – Bartók again comes to mind, as well as Messiaen, though this is no criticism. It is salutary to be reminded of the tremendous influence exerted by such great figures as Stravinsky, Bartók and Messiaen, even if this applies less to today's musical scene. Cowell was certainly not alone in his receptivity and there is plenty of his own individuality in these works. The final movement of the concerto, Counter Rhythm, is an exuberant romp with a joyous conclusion. Like Synchrony and the Harrison concerto, this is fun music, with a strong sense of each composer enjoying himself. Enthusiastic applause would suggest that this ought to become a favourite concert piece.
 
Lou Harrison was a pupil of Cowell from 1935, but his own music has gamelan and other Asian influences. The Concerto for Organ and Percussion Orchestra sounds as though Harrison was having a whale of a time in his colourfully exotic sound-world. This is a thoroughly enjoyable, slightly dotty piece, utilising – but not over-using - a wide variety of percussion. Paul Jacobs, not to be confused with his pianist-namesake who died in 1983, is the outstanding soloist. Again Messiaen creeps in at certain points, but the hypnotic third and fourth movements in particular should encourage further exploration of Harrison's fascinating music. This concerto really ought to be a serious proposition for any concert programme featuring an organist. Surely we need a rest from the Saint-Saëns 3rd Symphony. Harrison's winner of a concerto - again, the word “fun” cannot be avoided - will certainly blow away the cobwebs without unduly scaring those of a sensitive nature. I for one shall definitely be searching out more Cowell and Harrison CDs. Tilson Thomas, at his best in this kind of off-beat repertoire – a man on a mission - should be loudly applauded for his adventurous programming.
 
Amériques is the one piece on this CD which I have known for decades. Performed here in its less familiar 1927 version, it retains its allure, while sounding much less radical than it once did. Maybe the sophistication of this very fine performance takes away a little of the edginess and danger, but then the San Francisco Symphony should not be blamed for being such superlative musicians. The sirens are very well integrated into the texture.
 
I have a slight problem with this CD's title. I don't believe that any of this music sounds particularly “maverick” - pioneering in its time, yes, but I would maintain that true mavericks such as Ives, Ruggles and Nancarrow were all much more uncompromising and still sound very modern today. To my ears all four pieces here are eminently accessible – never dull, but not forbidding either. It’s marvellously recorded too. Many listeners attracted by the disc’s curiosity value will find a great deal more than that.

Philip Borg-Wheeler