James Cohn (b 1928) is yet another great American composer who remains (mostly) under the radar (although Naxos recorded his music in 2007 which is a great achievement and helps to provide deserved visibility-yet I'm not sure many people know about that recording all the same) and after hearing this disc you will, along with being delighted, be wondering why on earth such a skilled and assured symphonist remains relatively unplayed and performed. Cohn's music is highly accessible and often unabashedly tonal; one can hear at times the English pastoral school of thought (especially Finzi and Moeran), once in a while the atmosphere and tender lyricism found in music by a composer such as Copland (although unlike Copland, Cohn is always "rougher" around the edges) not to mention a strong interest in jazz that shows up tastefully and most charming in many works. There is also a much more angular, Hindemithian/European side to the composer, as can be heard in the more 'serious' tone of his Symphonies Nos. 4 and 8 especially. The Eighth even might remind one somewhat of Martinu's Symphonies. In short, Cohn is one of the foremost tunesmiths of the 21st century, and he is still going at the age of 87.
The wonderful "Miniatures for Orchestra", which began life as a set of piano pieces is a perfect example of his varied and skillful palette; the beautiful opening "Sunrise" reminds me quite a bit of Finzi with it's singing clarinet and opulent strings-this is not to say it's derivative but rather that it holds a candle to any writing that Finzi was capable of. After this, we enter a world of jazz in "Boogie", taking us perhaps to after-hours in Harlem, NY, in the 1930's...and what follows in the brief third movement is an Eastern-European like folk dance, entitled "Freilach" (Yiddish for "Happy"). Indeed this charming work is a brief musical travelogue-and so much fun imo it ends up on 'repeat' for me many times! And as for the symphonies, I personally think Cohn's are some of best written by an American composer during the 20th century, really major contributions.
James Cohn was born in 1928 in Newark, New Jersey. He studied composition with Roy Harris, Wayne Barlow and Bernard Wagenaar and majored in Composition at the Juilliard School. He has written solo, chamber, choral and orchestral works, and his catalogue includes three string quartets, five piano sonatas, eight symphonies and an orchestral suite entitled The Little Circus. Several works have won awards, including a Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Prize for his Symphony No.2, and
an A.I.D.E.M. prize for his Symphony No.4, which was premiered in Florence, Italy. Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony introduced the composer's Symphony No. 3 and Variations on the Wayfaring Stranger. His opera The Fall of the City won an Ohio University Opera Award. There have been many performances of his choral and chamber music, and worldwide use of his works commissioned for television and cinema. Major commissions include one from the McKim Fund in the Library of Congress and another, the Concerto da Camera, premiered at the the Music at Gretna (PA) Festival as the Mount Gretna Suite. Maestro Guido Six, of the Conservatory of Music in Ostend, Belgium commissioned the Caprice for Claribel, his 30-piece clarinet choir. A recent commission, The Texas Suite, was given its premiere at the Texas Music Educators Association Convention in San Antonio in
2010. Maestro Six commissioned another new work for Claribel, which was premiered at the Midwest Clarinet Conference in Chicago in 2012.
The composer's own words about the music:
"I wrote Symphony No. 3 in 1955, and scored it for a grouping that I would continue to use in all of my later orchestral works: 5 woodwinds, 3 brass, 2 percussionists, and a minimum of 15 string-players, with the understanding that if additional string-players would be available, more of them could be added to each string-part. The Symphony begins in the tonality of G minor, and opens with a quiet single clarinet melody floating over a kettle-drum roll. Then the strings re-state the melody, with short comments following from the woodwinds. A second melody enters, introduced by the trumpet, followed by a third melody introduced by the strings. After that is a "development" section with increasing tensions, building to a restatement of both the first and second melodies and subsequently subsiding into a quiet, final ending. The second movement, in E-flat major, is slower, and more wistful, meditative and lyrical. The third movement is a scherzo movement, in a faster 5/8 tempo, with alternating moments both boisterous and tender. The Fourth and final movement is a passionate succession of both angry and sad declarations, building up to a last definitive statement"
"The Nine Miniatures were first composed as works for piano solo, and for the late Polish pianist Maryla Jonas, who intended to use some of them as encores at the conclusion of her concerts. She particularly liked to use tiny "music-box" pieces (such as the miniature entitled Lullaby). Another of the miniatures, the Mazurka, is my portrait of her. Some years later, after many requests from various musicians, I decided to recast the entire set for orchestra."
"Syphony No. 4 was composed in 1956, a year of political turmoil that saw the invasion by Soviet Russian troops into Poland and other territories of Eastern Europe. I had already started writing the symphony when I heard increasingly distressing news bulletins over the radio, and as a result the symphony slowly evolved into a sort of political commentary, and a mirror of my emotions. Just as Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony (No. 7 in C major) might be regarded as a documentary on the military and political events of his time, my Fourth Symphony is an expression at that later time, as well as a commentary on the actions of those who had ordered the invasion. The Fourth Symphony opens with a solemn and somber implication of what will come, and then moves into a more joyous section, serving as an evocation of a people and a culture that had existed before the "calamity". The second movement begins serenely, moves to a more agitated and sad middle section, and concludes with the same serene melody as had opened it. The last and third movement mirrors - until its conclusion - the hopes and optimism that existed in Eastern Europe up until the final crushing military events, when Soviet tanks and troops stormed into the last remaining cities and villages."
"Symphony No. 8 begins and ends in C major. The first movement is in 3/4 time, and opens with a lyrical solo featuring the oboe, after which other instruments enter to add their own commentaries. The second movement, in 4/4 time, is slower and more pensive, and contains some dramatic and quizzical commentaries, with dialogues between various instruments. The third movement, a scherzo in 3/4 time, is restless, satyrical, sardonic. The fourth and final movement, in 4/4 time, is passionate, tragic, turbulent, and dramatic, and ends with a short sharp restatement of the same four emphatic notes with which it began".
Symphony No. 3 in G Minor (1955) (23:46)
1)I. Allegretto cantabile (6:50)
2)II. Andante comodo (6:16)
3)III. Scherzo: Presto ma non troppo (4:13)
4)IV. Allegro furioso (6:24)
Miniatures for Orchestra (1954; Orchestrated 1975) (16:12)
Symphony No. 4 in A Major (1956) (20:47)
14)I. Adagio - Allegro giocoso (8:24)
15)II. Andante tranquillo - più mosso, turbato - andante tranquillo (7:31)
16)III. Allegretto vivo - Andante tragico (4:51)
Symphony No. 8 in C Major (1978) (18:15)
17)I. Allegro con moto (7:14)
18)II. Andante comodo e cantabile (4:21)
19)III. Scherzo: Allegro scherzando (3:33)
20)IV. Allegro con fuoco (3:05)
These are all world-premiere recordings (recorded in 2001, released 2012).
Enjoy what I think is one of the finest discs by any American composer!