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21 August 2011

Henry Cowell / Lou Harrison - split LP (CRI)

"You can't go wrong with CRI" is one of those steadfast rules of vinyl accumulation, though really, my own shelves have only a few. Both sides here are conducted by Leopold Stokowski, a "man of his time" by choice, and featuring Maro and Anahid Ajemian, two Armenian-American sisters who solo on piano and violin respectively. The Cowell composition, 'Persian Set', based on his time in Iran. It reminds me in places of the reedy mystery of the Meshes of the Afternoon soundtrack, though by the last Rondo movement, it explodes with a living, bouncy ferocity. There's some vocals during this bit which are proto-prog rock (really, they could be from the Aphrodite's Child album); the whole composition should involve a tar, a Persian guitar, but this recording uses a regular guitar. On the flip is a similarly eerie, modal work by Lou Harrison from 1951 called 'Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra'. Now, Harrison's slowly becoming one of my heroes of 20th century composition and this showcases him well, if a bit more downcast and moody than his usual ebullient work. There's a certain ebb and flow in the suites of Lou Harrison - what he does he is gets these long, slow melodies usually played by strings or flutes, with a fast, rhythmic but limited-palette instrument underneath, in a gamelan style. This one starts out with a bang but gets slow in the middle, only to slowly build back to a plateau. The second movement of this suite eeks out carefully, putting its toes in the water slowly with some exploratory fluting; the stillness is incredible. Gradually the gongs or other percussion start to appear, giving a wider horizon to the pastoral scene.

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