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Aaron COPLAND (1900-90)
Chamber Music

CD1 [60:26]
Movement for String Quartet (1923) [5:51]
Prelude for Piano Trio (1924) [4:39]
Two Pieces for Violin and Piano (1926) [10:10]
Vocalise for Flute and Piano (1928) [4:54]
Two Pieces for String Quartet (1923 and 1928) [8:29]
Vitebsk for Piano Trio (1928) [11:56]
Sextet for String Quartet, Clarinet and Piano (1933, revised 1937) [14:27]
CD2 [62:38]
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1943) [19:13]
Quartet for Piano and Strings (1950) 21:10]
Duo for Flute and Piano (1967-71) [8:45]
Two Threnodies for Flute and String Trio (1971) [7:40]
Music from Copland House (Derek Bermel, clarinet; Michael Boriskin, piano; Paul Lustig Dunkel, flute; Nicholas Kitchen, violin; Wilhelmina Smith, cello) with the Borromeo String Quartet (Nicholas Kitchen and Will Fedkenheuer, violins; Mai Motobuchi, viola; Yeesun Kim, cello), Jennifer Frautschi (Sextet) and Curtis Mocomber (Prelude), violins; Hsin-Yun Huang (Quartet and Threnodies) and Cynthia Phelps (Sextet), violas
Recording details: Sextet (December 4, 2000, Performing Arts Center, State University of New York at Purchase, NY); Piano Quartet (April 26, 2001, Town Hall, New York, NY); Two Pieces for String Quartet and Movement (May 8, 2001, Performing Arts Center, State University of New York at Purchase, NY); Sonata and Two Pieces for Violin and Piano (July 3, 2001, Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, MA); Duo, Vocalise, Vitebsk and Threnodies (December 14, 2001, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, NY); and Prelude (March 25, 2003, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, NY)
ARABESQUE Z6794-2 [60:26 + 62:38]

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Make no mistake: this is an important release. Everything Copland wrote for two to six players - all of it interesting music, and much of it inspired! - played with unique authority by expert devotees of the composer, faithfully recorded in an agreeable acoustic, and handsomely packaged as a CD-duo with a most informative booklet.

The music included here spans Copland’s entire creative career, from 1923 to 1971, and embraces his early French influences, his jazz and modernist phases as well as his dabblings with 12-tone technique. Only his engagement with folk music is under-represented here. You’ll find here all the "sober expressivity, brash exuberance, lean textures, spiky rhythmic energy, rugged elegance and poised dignity" (I quote from Michael Boriskin’s liner notes) which typify the composer at his best.

The early Movement for string quartet was a student work, written for his teacher, Nadia Boulanger. Even here, we can recognise the generative small motivic gesture of its opening phrase as being quintessentially Copland, even if its sombre European harmonic flavour reveals its immaturity.

Interesting that the last section of that piece should be re-cast (or ‘re-contextualised’) as the Prelude of the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, and that this ‘new’ Prelude should in time be rescored as an isolated movement for Piano Trio. This constant development and recycling of material is typical of a composer whose music seems to have been forever on the move, progressing forward in search of new challenges and new solutions.

The Two Pieces for Violin and Piano inhabit the same racy sound world as the contemporary Music for the Theatre and Piano Concerto - the languorous Nocturne contrasting with the raucous Ukulele Serenade. Both very much products of their time.

The tranquil and simply-conceived Vocalise was, like the similarly-named piece by Rachmaninov, a wordless song for voice and piano until, in 1968, forty years on, Copland made a transcription (for Doriot Anthony Dwyer of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) for flute. An attractive piece which sticks in the memory.

The1928 slow movement for string quartet, with its memorable major-minor harmonic backcloth, was joined by the quirky Rondino of five years earlier to form the Two Pieces for String Quartet. Light-worlds from Bartók’s Fourth, of the same year, but a worthwhile addition to the repertory.

Vitebsk is built around a Hasidic song, and is intended to evoke "the harshness and drama of Jewish life". Despite its boisterous central section, it remains a stark and tragic piece which, with its biting quarter tones, embodies an intellectualism which exemplifies the composer’s late-20s stylistic wanderings. Rather heavy going, but its sincerity cannot be doubted.

The Sextet - a simplified re-scoring of the Short Symphony - is another manifestation of the same modernist phase. But this time, it is its experimentation with jazz-inspired rhythmic complexities (rather than its harmonic language) which provokes our attention. Indeed, in its orchestral guise, neither Koussevitsky nor Stokowski could be persuaded to take it on, on account of its rhythmic difficulties, and Chavez demanded all of ten rehearsals for its eventual 1934 premiere! A tour de force, and very expertly rendered here!

The effervescent Violin Sonata comes midway (stylistically and chronologically) between Fanfare for the Common Man and Appalachian Spring, and - if only the CD-buying public were to take to chamber music as they do orchestral music - could be every bit as popular. This is the Copland of fresh air and open spaces. With essentially diatonic material and transparent textures, this is extremely attractive music, exhibiting all the wealth of expert management which typifies Copland’s best.

The Piano Quartet - Copland’s first extended attempt at 12-tone composition - marks yet another period of renewal. Although introspective and mostly elegiac in character, this music is no nearer to Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School than Stravinsky’s exactly contemporary excursions into serialism. Indeed, Copland and Stravinsky - both diatonicists, with none of Schoenberg’s ‘need’ for serialism - would appear to have regarded this ‘style’ of composition as no more than a short-term discipline.

The late Duo harkens back to the homespun idiom of the Violin Sonata. In turns pastoral, wistful and poignant, but often expressively energetic, this music took four years to write, but (typically) flows like water. The Threnodies (‘In Memoria’ for Stravinsky and Beatrice Cunningham) were among Copland’s last music.

Music for Copland House is led by and admirably managed by pianist Michael Boriskin. There are no weaknesses in the cast. Everything is played with complete technical mastery, and with the most sympathetic understanding of the composer’s expressive objectives. It adds up to a most enjoyable and instructive listening experience. Lovers of Copland should not hesitate to buy. Nor should those of you with your one (supposedly ‘representative’) Copland CD on your shelves, or anyone else who is interested in this most fascinating 50-year period in music history, where ‘anything went’. It’s all here, and it’s all good stuff.


Peter J Lawson

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