Classical CD Reviews

HANSON: Symphony No. 2, “Romantic”; Symphony No. 4, “Requiem”; Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitsky – Jena Philharmonic Orch. / David Montgomery – Arte Nova
JAMES COHN: Symphony No. 3 in G Minor; Miniatures for Orch.; Symphony No. 4 in A Major; Symphony No. 8 in C Major – Slovak Radio Sym. Orch./ Kirk Trevor – MSR Classics

Two fine but rather different American composers are showcased on these recordings. The much less familiar James Cohn gets more compelling advocacy here.

Published on January 30, 2013

HANSON: Symphony No. 2, “Romantic”; Symphony No. 4, “Requiem”; Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitsky – Jena Philharmonic Orch. / David Montgomery – Arte Nova</br>      JAMES COHN: Symphony No. 3 in G Minor; Miniatures for Orch.; Symphony No. 4 in A Major; Symphony No. 8 in C Major – Slovak Radio Sym. Orch./ Kirk Trevor – MSR Classics

HOWARD HANSON: Symphony No. 2, Op. 30, “Romantic”; Symphony No. 4, Op. 34, “Requiem”; Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitsky, Op. 44 – Jena Philharmonic Orch. / David Montgomery – Arte Nova ANO 433060 [Distr. by Allegro], 59:44 **:

JAMES COHN: Symphony No. 3 in G Minor; Miniatures for Orchestra; Symphony No. 4 in A Major; Symphony No. 8 in C Major – Slovak Radio Sym. Orch./ Kirk Trevor – MSR Classics MS 1435 [Distr. by Albany], 79:01 ****:

Howard Hanson remained a resolutely Romantic composer in an era of changing styles and tastes. His heritage (his parents were Swedish immigrants settled in Nebraska) and stylistic proclivities led maybe naturally to an admiration and emulation of Sibelius, especially noticeable in Hanson’s Symphony No. 1, “Nordic,” but also in the Second, his most popular.

Despite David Montgomery’s claims in the notes to this recording, I don’t find a lot in the Fourth Symphony that “reveals Hanson’s earliest Nordic influences.” However, despite its general darkness of atmosphere, it certainly does “contain lyrical moments of extraordinary beauty” that may owe something to Sibelius the melodist. But then the Fourth, an orchestral requiem in honor of Hanson’s father, is also unrelenting in its tragic musings with the exception of the third movement, “Dies irae,” a driving scherzo that’s as close as this composer gets to a modernist perspective. It comes as a strange sort of release in the midst of the prevailing gloom.

The Fourth Symphony won for Hanson the 1944 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and it was his personal favorite among his symphonies. But it’s safe to say the work is not a favorite of audiences. Montgomery’s recording enters a field that is hardly crowded, his leading competitor being Gerard Schwarz, whose recording with the Seattle Symphony is available on a Naxos disc that also features the Fifth Symphony and Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitsky. Schwarz’s way with Hanson is so assured that his recordings are generally deemed worthy surrogates for the composer’s own. And the Delos engineering in Schwarz’s Hanson cycle is much finer than that on the current Arte Nova disc, which is bit distant though serviceable. As far as the popular Second Symphony is concerned, besides Schwarz, there are fine recordings from Leonard Slatkin (EMI), Erich Kunzel (Telarc), and the composer himself (Mercury Living Presence). So I’m afraid that Montgomery’s yeoman-like performance leading the game but provincial-sounding Jena Philharmonic must be considered an also-ran.


James Cohn (born 1928 in Newark) seems to be one of those American composers who goes on quietly writing much music, getting it performed on a fairly regular basis, winning awards (some prestigious), and largely going unnoticed by most music lovers. That includes me, I’m sorry to say, though from now on I’ll keep him firmly on my radar. Cohn studied composition with Roy Harris, among others, and graduated from Juilliard in 1950, completing at least some of his eight symphonies while still technically a student. One of these, along with the 1967 Symphony No. 7, have been recorded on Naxos, the later symphony by Kirk Trevor and the Slovak Philharmonic. On the current disc, Trevor moves to the podium of the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra.

What is Cohn’s music like? If you expect him to reflect, slavishly or otherwise, the aesthetic of his teacher Roy Harris, you’re in for either disappointment or pleasant surprise. While Harris’s symphonies display a strange admixture of big-boned Romantic gestures and open harmonies that suggest the American outback, he also revered the formal structures of the Baroque and before. So in Harris, we have long-breathed melody, harmonic simplicity, yet structural complexity, often all in the same piece, as in his classic Third Symphony. I’d say that James Cohn’s symphonies tend more toward Classical principles of theme and development. While in his booklet notes Cohn speaks of melodies, “declarations,” and “statements,” his melodic writing is mostly aphoristic; rather than the long melodies that both Hanson and Harris admired and emulated in Sibelius, Cohn’s symphonies mostly deal in motives and their development in a way that recalls the great Classicists rather than the Romantics.

Apparently as the Cohn gained in experience, his language became increasingly economical. While the first movement of the Third Symphony (1955) seems to labor the motivic elements that form the basis of its architecture, the argument in his last symphony, No. 8 of 1978, seems much tighter, leaner. Its first movement has an unusual waltz tempo (3/4 time), which adds a paradoxical element to music that is mostly tense and edgy, though lyrical episodes, led by a solo oboe, intrude. This is a very dramatic symphony, capped with an angry, turbulent finale, but it is one that doesn’t share its program, if there is any.

On the other hand, the equally passionate Fourth Symphony of 1956 has a program, or at least a clear subtext. It was written during the Soviet invasion and crackdown on Poland. In his notes to the recording, Cohn invokes Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, which graphically portrayed the siege of Leningrad and the eventual triumph of Soviet forces over the invading Nazis. Compared to Shostakovich’s monstrosity (at least in length—I really like the symphony), Cohn’s work is a model of economy, but I do hear echoes of Shostakovich in the piece, even if Cohn’s individual scoring is leaner and more idiosyncratic (isn’t that a saxophone solo in the tense first movement? and isn’t a glockenspiel a strange inclusion in music that tends toward the tragic?) As in Shostakovich’s symphony, fear and hope mix throughout the work, and the ultimate message is clearly not one of ultimate defeat.

The nine Miniatures for Orchestra find Cohn in a much more relaxed mood. They started life as a series of miniatures written for Polish pianist Maryla Jonas and were subsequently orchestrated “after many requests from various musicians.” They have a more populist feel than the symphonies, and that’s reflected in the individual titles: “Boogie,” “Drag,” “Parade.” Cohn’s orchestration is apposite, right down to the crooning jazz trumpet in “Boogie” and licorice-stick licks in “Drag.”

The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra seems a little stressed in some of the tuttis of Cohn’s symphonies, but for the most part the playing is good to very good, and conductor Trevor’s previous experience with Cohn’s work pays off in performances that are animated, sympathetic and engaging. The recording has apparently been in the vault for a while (the CD cover gives the date as 2001), but the sound throughout is fine, the prominent percussion captured with verve and immediacy. Given the generous and varied program on offer here, this is an excellent entrée to an American composer who should be better known.

—Lee Passarella




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