I doubt whether Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell and Edgard Varèse thought of themselves as ‘maverick’ any more than bananas taste of yellow. The trouble with ‘maverick’ – and ditto lame descriptors like ‘quirky’, ‘idiosyncratic’ and ‘eccentric’ – is that they’re imposed on music of free spirit only after the event by those afraid of its message. It’s a patronising, coy judgement made from the top down, rather than the bottom up.
But Michael Tilson Thomas doesn’t play these composers like they’re waggish tricksters, or possessed by idealistic amateurism. Far from it. Clearly Tilson Thomas considers each to be in some way ‘classic’, each note worthy of diligent finesse, each textural shift balanced to an MTT. The long and chromatically fecund unaccompanied trumpet prologue that launches Cowell’s 1930 Synchrony makes this point manifest: a badge of honour, please, to the San Francisco SO’s lead trumpeter, who plays with such unity of tone that you begin to suspect he or she has had a sustain pedal hooked into the bell of the instrument. And then Tilson Thomas peels the orchestra open like a considerable box of delights; listen to how he weighs Cowell’s floaty woodwind against the subliminal push of a low-pitched gong. One sound is entirely a constituent part of the other.
Cowell’s Piano Concerto (1928) and Harrison’s 1973 Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra, the latter obviously indebted to the former, both have sitting at their harmonic core lashings of tone clusters inside which Tilson Thomas finds a functioning, animated tonality – especially when allied to Cowell and Harrison’s motor rhythms. Denk and Jacobs get physical with it; the organ can be a percussion instrument too.
Varèse was a Frenchman-in-New York visionary and doesn’t quite fit the ‘American maverick’ profiling either. But no matter. This is an expectionally fine Amériques, filled with depth and sonic glare, and not a little menace.