Leo Sowerby (1895-1968) is an all but forgotten American composer who was overshadowed by his contemporaries, Copland, Hanson, Harris, Barber and others. Yet, his career began with a meteoric rise: when he was only twenty-one the Chicago Symphony Orchestra devoted an entire concert to his music! Works on the program included the unlikely duo of his Cello Concerto and The Irish Washerwoman.
Most of his 550 compositions were liturgical – he was organist and choirmaster at St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago for many years – but he did produce twenty-nine orchestral scores, including five symphonies. His music is tonal and colorful, at times containing echoes of Respighi – a sort of Americanized Respighi – because of its sparkling orchestration and moments of what one might describe as exotic Americana. Theme in Yellow is probably the most substantial work here. Subtitled, "Poem for Orchestra after Carl Sandburg" (as is Prairie), the work here enjoys its première recording. It is light in character, less serious than the iffy but once-popular Prairie, and solidly-crafted.
From the Northland is subtitled "Impressions of the Lake Superior Country" and has four titled sections: Forest Voices, Cascades, Burnt Rock Pool, and The Shining Big-Sea Water. Each is quite atmospheric and imaginatively orchestrated, and the succession of movements presents one effective contrast after another. Cascades, for example, is colorful and lively, gossamer and delicate in its subtle instrumentation and playfully mysterious mood, creating quite a different sound world from that of the glacially-paced and autumnal Forest Voices. Speaking of things supposedly autumnal, the opening work, Comes Autumn Time, does not actually bring that season to mind: this is a colorful and light work that could have been named Springtime. It was also once a quite popular work, with Monteux, Walter, Stokowski, Damrosch, Rosbaud and others leading performances of it.
Paul Freeman and the Czech National players turn in fine work here and Cedille offers vivid sound and informative notes. If American music by a master craftsman from the first half of the 20th century appeals to you, then you will find this disc a most interesting discovery.
Copyright © 2001, Robert Cummings