paul bowles eos RCA 09026636852

Paul Bowles (1910-1999)
Pastorela; First Suite (1947)
Suite for Small Orchestra (1932-33)
Concerto for two pianos and orchestra (1946, orch. 1947-49)
The Wind Remains: a zarzuela (1941-42)
Secret Words; a suite of six songs (arr. and orch. Jonathan Sheffer, 1995)
Alan Feinberg and Leslie Stifelman (pianos)
Carl Halvorson (tenor), Lucy Schaufer (mezzo soprano)
Kurt Ollmann (baritone)
The Eos Orchestra/Jonathan Sheffer
rec. 1995, Manhattan Center Studios, New York City
Texts included
Presto CD
RCA 09026636852 [68]

Fresh from Bertolucci’s 1990 film of The Sheltering Sky, which starred Debra Winger and John Malkovich, by which its author, Paul Bowles, was decidedly unimpressed, interest moved to Bowles’ compositions. In the mid-90s The Eos Orchestra under Jonathan Sheffer and various instrumentalists and soloists got together to record a representative album for RCA, what may have been the first all-Bowles disc. Here it is, reissued by Presto.

The music was composed in the 1930s and 40s and strikes a good balance between orchestral and vocal with all the texts present in the booklet. Pastorela: First Suite was composed in 1947 and fuses French clarity with Latin and American elements in a melange of some charm throughout its five brief movements. There’s a Coplandesque Mexicana quality to the first, Franco-Americana in the second, and tart Latin colours, balletically ingratiating and lively, in the fifth. It’s splendidly, cogently orchestrated and an exciting eight-minute work. Up to the age of 40 Bowles primarily composed, focusing on incidental music, ballet and film music commissions and was well versed in characterising quickly.

The earliest piece here is the Suite for Small Orchestra of 1932-33 written when Bowles was in his early 20s and showing his early fascination with Berber melodies. The clarity of the winds again suggests French models and the occasional spicy dissonances and sensuous dance themes lead on in the finale to hints of Milhaud’s extroversion in a winning, panache-filled close.

If you’re looking for a paradise of polyrhythms turn instead to the Concerto for two pianos and orchestra, composed in 1946 and orchestrated between 1947 and 1949. Here one finds gamelan evocations amidst much scintillating sonic bravura, a perpetuum mobile second movement and a finale that returns to the brazen high spirits of the opening movement now transfigured into a shameless Broadway romp. Alan Feinberg and Leslie Stifelman are the two intrepid, galvanizing pianists.

The Wind Remains (1941-42) is a zarzuela based on the poetry of Lorca and is somewhat atypical of Bowles compositions in the 1940s. Spoken text is not performed in this recording. The premiere was conducted by Leonard Bernstein and the choreographer was Merce Cunningham; some pedigree, obviously, but after the premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943 it wasn’t heard again until this Eos Orchestra recording. The songful Iberian ethos is pervasive but so are indelibly attractive elements, such as a slinky comic dance movement, a Stravinskian sense of concise drama, and Falla-like wit and tunefulness. Carl Halvorson (tenor) and Lucy Schaufer (mezzo soprano) perform admirably.

Finally, there is Secret Words, a suite of six songs arranged and edited by the conductor of The Eos Orchestra, Jonathan Sheffer, in 1995. The songs are all by Bowles himself and were originally cast for voice and piano. They vary quite widely, embracing 1920s evocations, big stage production numbers, but also a calm, poised sense of reserve: a well-balanced set very effectively orchestrated.

I’m not sure that interest in Bowles’ compositions has quite sustained itself in the way that it has for another writer-composer, Anthony Burgess, but if this disc’s reissue can stimulate further exploration, it will all be to the good. Bowles would have made no pretence at being a first-rate composer, but he would have wanted to be noted as a practical communicator across a number of genres who could orchestrate, write some memorable melodies, and – from time to time – excite and enchant the listener.

Jonathan Woolf

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