> Aaron Copland - Clarinet Concerto [TH]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Clarinet Concerto (1947-48)
Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo (1942)
Sextet for string quartet, clarinet and piano (1937)
Quartet for piano and strings (1950)
Richard Horsford (clarinet), Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Thierry Fischer (Concerto)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, John Farrar (Rodeo)
Michael Collins (clarinet), Martin Roscoe (piano), Vanbrugh Quartet (sextet and quartet)
Recorded at Barking Assembly Hall, 1989 (Concerto), Winter Gardens, Bournemouth 1993 (Rodeo), Potton Hall, Suffolk, 1999 (sextet and quartet)
ASV PLATINUM PLT 8504 [70.51]


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On first acquaintance, these new ASV releases seem to have a slightly more interesting agenda than some budget re-issues. The brief appears to be to give us a broader picture of a composer’s output, rather than simply pandering to popular taste with all the usual ‘war-horses’. Take the present Copland issue. Yes, there are the ubiquitous Rodeo - Dance Episodes, available in numerous alternative versions, though nearly always coupled with, say, Billy the Kid or Appalachian Spring. Here, we get a good cross-section of other Copland, much of which is top-drawer stuff, and in superb performances.

To deal with Rodeo first, although you are likely to have a version already in your collection, don’t let that put you off investigating this release. Even if the other items weren’t of real interest, this is a still a cracking performance of this much-recorded work. The Bournemouth Symphony play for their lives, and John Farrer, whose other work I have to confess to not knowing, proves himself a worthwhile advocate of the Copland style. Rhythms fizz and bounce, accents are sharply etched, solo woodwind work is exceptional, and the recording has tremendous weight and amplitude, altogether in the demonstration category. This is a rendition worthy of Bernstein himself.

The wonderful Clarinet Concerto, surely one of Copland’s finest pieces, gets a similarly idiomatic performance. The contemplative, slightly bluesy opening, is played with a rapt simplicity that is just right. Copland packs a lot into seventeen minutes, and the mood swings and marvellous variety of material are superbly judged by all. Richard Horsford’s tone is warm yet full, and the support from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, here clearly enjoying themselves enormously, is as musical as one could wish for. I love the virile, athletic string tone at 12.59, where Copland is toying with a Brazilian hit tune in a truly jazz-like fashion. The last few bars, with their overt reference to the famous clarinet opening of Rhapsody in Blue, crown an invigorating and satisfying reading, well up with the best.

Of real interest to collectors may well be the two chamber items, though there could be a hint of familiarity with one of them. The Sextet in fact started out life as the Short Symphony, with Copland fashioning the chamber work in response to criticism from, among others, Stokowski and Koussevitsky. The rhythmic complexity they obviously encountered in its orchestral form are still very much in evidence in the sextet, but textures are understandably leaner and clearer. A direct comparison between the two makes for very interesting listening, and both versions are equally enjoyable. The spikiness of the opening movement is brilliantly conveyed by Roscoe and the Vanbrugh Quartet, who make light of the fidgety cross-rhythms that form the backbone of the movement. Copland in super-Stravinsky mode is always exciting, and it is nicely balanced by the elegiac slow section, with its hints of later works to come. The finale, marked precise and rhythmic, gets playing that is exactly that. There are clear echoes of the angular melodic quality of the earlier Piano Variations, as well as foreshadows of the later El Salon Mexico, and the tremendous forward impetus is well sustained by these players.

The same could be said of the Piano Quartet of 1950, a fine piece not often heard today. It was composed, according to the composer ‘… in a barn in Richmond, Massachusetts with a beautiful view of open meadows and distant mountains’. Copland had always toyed with serialism, and this piece does have hints of a tone-row, albeit eleven rather than twelve (this may point to Copland’s ambivalent attitude to the method). The tonal pull is always strong, and though the melodies have an angularity and dissonant ‘spice’ about them, they are completely memorable and distinct. The way the superb first movement unfolds in great open paragraphs is a good example. The restless scherzo, which Bernstein so admired, is beautifully pointed in this rendition – listen to the marvellously uniform syncopations at 2.39 onwards. This is major Copland, and ought to be better known. Maybe this excellent disc will do the trick.

Recording quality is uniformly high throughout, and notes are very brief but certainly helpful. This is a cheap way to get to know other aspects of this composer’s art, and it is recommended unreservedly.

Tony Haywood

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