SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
“American Mavericks” – COWELL: Synchrony; Piano Concerto; HARRISON: Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orch.; VARESE: Ameriques – Jeremy Denk, piano/ Paul Jacobs, organ/ San Francisco Symphony/ Michael Tilson Thomas – SFS Media
Published on November 17, 2012
“American Mavericks” – COWELL: Synchrony; Piano Concerto; HARRISON: Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orch.; VARESE: Ameriques – Jeremy Denk, piano/ Paul Jacobs, organ/ San Francisco Symphony/ Michael Tilson Thomas – SFS Media multichannel SACD 821936-0056-2-0, 73:23 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] (11/13/12) *****:
This latest entry in the San Francisco Symphony series of topflight SACDs preserves one of the live evenings of their very successful and long-running American Mavericks Festival, dedicated to America’s innovative musical heritage of the 20th century. Michael Tilson Thomas has long been a champion of American composers. I attended one of this series years ago, and as I recall Lou Harrison was there in person. Most of the works chosen for these programs are from composers who were true mavericks – who didn’t fit into any of the types of composition – but went their own unique way. As I recall, previous programs included such composers as John Cage, Conlon Nancarrow and Harry Partch. These four selections are all intense and in your face—they’re not subtle little abstract creations.
The opening work by Henry Cowell has a mystical and atmospheric mood to it, and is wildly atonal without conforming to any special system such as serialized music. It was written in 1930 as a multi-media extravaganza for dancer Martha Graham. His Piano Concerto abounds in his famous tone clusters, in which he asked the soloist to play whole fistfuls of keys at once. Yet the concerto has three movements, with a longer slow one in the middle, just like many Romantic-period piano concertos. The movements are titled “Polyharmony,” “Tone Cluster,” and “Counter Rhythm,” which give an idea of what one will hear in the work. Soloist Jeremy Denk dashes it off with aplomb.
Lou Harrison was very much into mixing music of the Far East into his works, and also worked out a do-it-yourself approach to including percussion in many of his works. His Organ Concerto percussion orchestra makes use of junk car brake drums, among other instruments. Organist Paul Jacobs is known for having performed Bach’s entire organ music during an 18-hour marathon when he was only 23. He was previously heard on a San Francisco Symphony SACD in the Copland Organ Symphony. The Harrison concerto has five short movements and blends the two unusual musical partners in interesting ways. In addition to Cowell-inspired tone clusters, some passages require specially-cut wooden slabs to hold down a bunch of keys at once. The massive 22-minute Amériques of Edgard Varese is heard in its 1927 version. Its often completely off-the-wall sounds—requiring an expanded orchestra of 125 musicians—have influenced generations of other composers. It was the composer’s first work after he moved to the U.S., and its atonality sought a continuum of pitch beyond the twelve-tone system of Schoenberg. Although it is filled (in excess in my opinion) with siren sounds—much more than in the composer’s Ionisation—Varese insisted that Amériques was absolute music, “completely unrelated to the noises of modern life.” Go figure.
Both performances and the hi-res surround sonics are superb, as have been all of the SF Symphony’s recorded efforts since they were dropped by RCA Victor.