James Cohn, 1928-
Symphony No. 7, Op. 45 (1967) 27:46. Cond. Vakhtang Jordania
Symphony No. 2, Op. 13 (1949) 22:16. Cond. Kirk Trevor
Variations on 'The Wayfaring Stranger,' Op. 34 (1960) 11:28 Cond.
Waltz in D, Op 29a, orch 1962) 4:01. Cond. Kirk Trevor
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Naxos 8.559376 (American Classics) 65:53
Recorded 2001; released 2008
Notes by the composer.
'Of Muskrats and Butterflies'
Variations on 'Muskrat Ramble' 3:07
Piano Sonata No. 2 11:25
Piano Sonata No. 5 8:50
Waltz in D 4:26
Strutting Butterflies 1:33
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra 14:27
with the Latvian Symphony Orchestra, cond. Vakhtang Jordania
all pieces: Mirian Conti, Piano
Available, along with other Cohn recordings, from XLNT at
Cohn's particular creative strengths are in his gifts for rhythm and
orchestration, such that his orchestral works are engaging and his piano
music delightful. In style he has not exactly been in sync with his
times, which is not something I personally have a problem with, but which
no doubt helps to explain why he is not better known. For the most part
his music is quite tonal, for one thing. Another reason for his relative
obscurity is that he has, I believe, spent much of his career writing
music for cinema and television - generally not high-profile venues. It
is gratifying that Naxos is now, when he is eighty, giving him better
recognition through its American Classics series.
The major work here is his Symphony No. 7, which is neoclassical in
style. In fact, the opening Allegro giusto, in its melodic angularity
and staccato rhythms, often with the beat at the end of a phrase is quite
reminiscent of Stravinsky's symphonies. I'm not in the least inclined
to say that of the beautiful, and beautifully orchestrated, Andante
cantabile which follows. I hear it as a musical conversation with
different voices alternating and at one point becoming intense. The
Allegretto energetico seems to combine the approaches of the previous
movements, with contrasting vigor and gentleness suggestive perhaps of
concerto grosso's manner of contrasting groups of players, though for
full orchestra. One only wishes that Cohn would have varied the main
theme more, but he describes it as 'alternating between a deadpan formality
and semi- hysteria.' The finale, Molto presto e precipitato certainly
begins in the character suggested in Italian, but the manner and pace
varies later, again in a kind of conversation with a bit of drama to it.
The music breathes and the forces range from light and soft strings to
drums and brass. Cohn describes the finale as 'a rondo with a driving
insistent melody, occasionally relieved by short, cryptic but lighthearted
The Symphony No. 2 was a student work, presented as Cohn's graduation
piece at Julliard, where he studied with Bernard Wagenaar. (He also
studied with Roy Harris and Wayne Barlow, who in turn studied with both
Schoenberg and Hanson) It happened to win him a Queen Elizabeth of Belgium
award as well as his degree. Already, at the age of 20 or 21 Cohn was
a consummate orchestrator, especially in his use of the woodwinds. He
describes his opening Allegro risoluto as 'by turns, both defiant and
reflective.' I would have characterized it as displaying alternately
vigor and sweetness. The second scherzo movement, Presto, has pounding,
driving chords but with its significant pauses and expressive woodwind
solos it is hardly headlong; Cohn speaks of 'obsessive driving fugurations
and short jazzy passages.'The Andante con moto is based on a serial row
but meant to be 'emotionally expressive, alternating between sad, moody
and passionate exclamations.' The finale, Allegro marcato, is a rondo,
with notable use of woodwinds and drums.
Variations on 'The Wayfaring Stranger (a southern folksong) was written
in memory of his friends, a couple who died within weeks of one another.
It begins with a long theme played by the oboe and there are twelve
contrasting variations at different tempi and rhythms. Appealing solos
for violin, flute, clarinet, bassoon, and trumpet are also heard as well
as the basses and full orchestra. The Waltz in D, originally scored for
brass octet and then solo piano, eventually became a work for symphony
orchestra. It contains some strong but unexpected beats of the sort
Prokofiev might have appreciated and makes a very different impression
from the piano version.
The sound on the Naxos disc leaves nothing to be desired, to my ears on
my equipment. I am happy to give this release a strong recommendation.
Cohn's piano music on the XLNT release is very different from the
orchestral music, except that as I suggested it is also characterized
by strong rhythms. It is generally unpretentious, playful, often whimsical
and even waggish, as some of the titles suggest. Butterflies don't
strut, except in a private reverie, for instance.
One of the Miniatures is called 'Boogie.' The fifth sonata is subtitled
'a slightly 'Blue' Sonata' and 'has elements of 'blues' and 'boogie-woogie,'
in addition to other unexpected features.' Cohn thinks that a 20th century
Josef Haydn might have written for the keyboard like this. Other works
have elements of jazz and tango. This is not 'earnest' music, not even
the concerto and sonatas. Listening to it I was sometimes reminded,
especially by Muskrat Ramble, of the rags of Judith Zaimont and, like
those, these pieces are quite enjoyable if taken in the spirit they
Most of these piano works were written on commission for two pianists:
Maryla Jonas, who did not live long enough to play thesecond sonata.
The Argentine-American Mirian Conti who plays a Steinway Hamburg D Concert
Grand on this recording, performs all these pieces very well and very
The nine Miniatures grew out of a request for a little 'Music Box'
piece. They are in different styles. The first, 'Sunrise,' is gentle
nut is followed by 'Boogie' and a piece that sounds like a Russian dance.
Parade is appealingly jaunty.
Variations on Muskrat Ramble has origins in a Dixiland march but morphs
into various forms including a tango. Americana is based on two traditional
Neither piano sonata nor the recent piano concerto is very lengthy.
The second sonata opens quietly; it is mildly jazzy and takes a stronger
cast toward the end of the movement which, like the slow movement following
is rather meditative. The fast finale is the most interesting of the
three movements, having more complexity and vigor. Sonata 5 has very
short first and lst movements, with jazzy and rag-like character. The
longer middle movement is less interesting.
The concerto has a fast, slow, fast construction like the sonatas. The
first movement is bouncy and lively. The second is quiet and relaxing
with a recurring old time melody. The finale opens in a thumping manner
and then seems to skip along merrily. The playing is fresh and vigorous.
The works on this disc are not identified by date or opus number, and
the movements of the sonatas and concerto are not given tempo descriptions.
The disc will surely give pleasure to those who find this style of music
Copyright 2009 R. James Tobin
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