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William Zagorski
Fanfare, May 2009

James Cohn was born in 1928 in Newark, New Jersey. He studied composition with Roy Harris, Wayne Barlow, and Bernard Wagenaar, whose conservative and largely tuneful influences are writ large in his music. The two symphonies demonstrate fine motivic development, resourceful and appealing harmonic structure, long-limbed melodic arcs in their slow movements, and stunning orchestration. It is clear that Cohn revels in the sonic possibilities of the orchestra and exploits them with uncommon mastery and delight, as if his favored medium were a vast musical playground. Variations on “The Wayfaring Stranger” depends as much upon its orchestral colors as it does on its harmonic manipulations for its success. The result is 11.5 minutes of gratifying and often hauntingly moving music.

Cohn is fully at home in large-scale forms. Both symphonies—No. 7 composed in 1967, No. 2 in 1949—show a remarkable uniformity of utterance. This stems not from any lack of technical or emotional development over time, but from the strength of Cohn’s musical profile. One cannot mistake a Cohn work for that of anyone else. In sum, both works continue the mid-20th-century efflorescence of the American symphony, and do so with distinction. The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, variously under Vakhtang Jordania and Kirk Trevor, provides incisive, vibrant, and beautifully balanced performances…the melancholy little Waltz in D is…encountered in its orchestral garb on the Naxos disc. I found Cohn’s reworking of the tasty musical morsel illuminating…Cohn served as executive producer, and…the sound is uncommonly fine. The Naxos disc is particularly distinguished by its clarity of line. No instrumental voice is lost even in the most powerful and complex of tuttis, the dynamic range is huge by current standards, and instrumental colors are tangibly vivid…it is apparent that James Cohn takes great delight in his music-making. As a result, so can we.

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, January 2009

James Cohn (b. 1928 in Newark, New Jersey) is a composer I’d not previously encountered, though he’s not exactly unknown on the American scene. He studied composition with Roy Harris, Wayne Barlow, and Bernard Wagenaar, and graduated from Juilliard in 1950. His catalog includes, among other things, eight symphonies, three string quartets, five piano sonatas, a piano trio, two clarinet concertos, a concerto for trumpet and strings, a recent piano concerto, and an opera, The Fall of the City.

The works on this disc are a bit difficult to pin down—at least they are for me. To be sure, nothing will exfoliate eardrums. What may be inferred from the examples here is that Cohn’s music falls into a 20th-century, non-avant-garde, freely tonal (sometimes not), non-specifically melodic, relatively accessible, post-modernist style that relies heavily on rhythmic ostinatos and jazz-derived techniques…performances and recording are up to Naxos’s usual standards of excellence.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, December 2008

The Seventh Symphony by Newark-born James Cohn—and for that matter the Second—is in four movements. The first of these is busily insistent and has about it a touch or two of Hindemith and Prokofiev as does the piping hot finale which suggests the influence of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. The Allegro cantabile is an exercise in pastoral calm—a rustic cross between his teacher Roy Harris and Copland and RVW. The salty Piston-like grotesquerie of the third movement is amusingly disquieting.

The Second Symphony is a later student work written while he was studying with Bernard Wagenaar as a Juilliard graduation piece. The piece won a Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians Prize. Its first movement charms with grace but enlivens with a hard-jawed urgency. Bartók’s concerto returns in echo in the second movement and also in the busy originality and carhorn blurt, blare and military brashness of the finale. Serial procedures inhabit the third movement but as ever this is accomplished with great textural transparency.

The Variations on ‘The Wayfaring Stranger’ deftly explores the country pastoral and is initiated by a long-winding cor anglais solo. The piece is cut from the same misty serenity as Vaughan Williams’ Dives and Lazarus and Moeran’s rhapsodies yet with a distinct Percy Grainger lilt.  The Variations were premiered by Paul Paray with the Detroit Symphony who had also introduced Cohn’s Symphony No. 3 to the public.

The little Waltz in D sidles and nudges its way into the memory. It merits a place next to the eruptive Grand Era dances in Barber’s Souvenirs and just ever so slightly recalling Ravel’s La Valse—just with less impressionistic miasma.

The recording is as clear as a bell and the orchestra puts the music across well allowing for a suggestion of shrillness in the violins. The woodwind own a direct presence and appear to lean in towards the listener.

One is certainly left intrigued to hear the remaining six symphonies. In addition there are three string quartets and five piano sonatas. Among much else there is also an opera, The Fall of the City premièred in Athens, Ohio, after winning the Ohio University Opera Award.

American Record Guide, September 2008

James Cohn (b. 1928) studied under Roy Harris, Wayne Barlow, and Bernard Wagenaar, graduating from Juilliard in 1950. Though thoroughly romantic in spirit, Cohn, especially in Symphony 2 (1949) shows how much he knows of serial construction, particularly where it comes to being able to sustain melodies is such a dour framework (here he learned just about everything Alban Berg had to say on lyricism and 12-tone compositions).

Of the two symphonies here—and they are very different—the Second has some of the more interesting ideas and shifts of mood, though the Seventh will probably be what he is remembered for. That work is decidedly romantic in character, full of waltzes and lighthearted romps, but moves easily through theme-and-variation. The symphony, as the notes tell us, is Cohn’s first love. His Variations on The Wayfaring Stranger (1960) is an elegy in 12 variations based on a folk song that was sung in the American South at the end of religious gatherings: “I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger, traveling through this world of woe, and there’s no grief, sickness, or danger, in that bright world to which I go”. Finally, Waltz (1957, 1967) was originally written as an octet for brass instruments, then re-scored for piano, then arranged for full orchestra, which is what we have here. Coming at the end, as it does here, it’s like a slice of key lime pie after a wonderful meal.

David Hurwitz, July 2008

The performances are a little rough-edged but do the music sufficient justice, and the sonics are decent. These two symphonies, serious though they may be (indeed, that may be part of the problem), just aren’t special. This is all the more surprising considering that it was a pleasure to recommend two discs of Cohn’s works on XLNT when they appeared a few years ago. Perhaps he’s simply not as comfortable working with large forces, or with the symphonic genre—the chamber and other music on those prior releases was often delightful. If you can still find them and want to sample Cohn’s work, start there.

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