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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
The World of Aaron Copland

Fanfare for the Common Man (1942)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
Rec. July 1976, Royce Hall, Los Angeles
Lincoln Portrait (1942)
Gregory Peck (speaker)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
Rec. May 1968, Royce Hall, Los Angeles
Quiet City (1939)
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner
Rec. October 1975, St John's, Smith Square, London
Appalachian Spring (1944)
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Antal Dorati
Rec. November 1984, Old Orchestra Hall, Detroit
Five Songs from 'Old American Songs' (1950-58)
Marilyn Horne (mezzo soprano)/English Chamber Orchestra/Carl Davis
Rec. August 1985, Walthamstow Assembly Hall
El salón México (transcribed Bernstein) (1938)
Peter Jablonski (piano)
Rec. June 1990, Walthamstow Assembly Hall
Danzón Cubano (1945)
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/David Zinman
Rec. January 1993, Joseph Meyerhoff Hall, Baltimore
DECCA 473 146-2 [79.46]

 

Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn, the son of émigré Russian parents. During the course of his long career he was tireless in his efforts to champion the cause of American music; and his own substantial output reflects his eclectic tastes, for his compositions range through all the major forms. His achievement as a musician spread beyond his compositions, moreover, to other activities such as performing, lecturing and writing.

Decca's 'World of' series, which first appeared nearly fifty years ago and has recently been resurrected, is intended to give the collector an introduction to the art of a particular composer. In that case, one of the issues on the agenda must be the extent to which the chosen repertoire really is a representative survey. In this sense the Copland collection scores seven or eight out of ten. While some of the finest and most idiomatic works are here, including some of the best known, what is missing is the tougher aspect of a wide ranging personality. It is easy to see why an acerbic piece like the Piano Variations (1930) might not fit easily in this process, but it presence at the expense of Bernstein virtuoso transcription of El Salón México would have strengthened to recommendation of this reviewer, at least.

After that cavil at what is missing, let us rejoice instead in what we have. The Decca catalogue has accumulated some fine performances of Copland in some stunning recordings. During his tenure as principal conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta created a reputation for orchestral splendour and virtuosity that was second to none. So it proves in their 1975 recording of the famous Fanfare for the Common Man, which makes a stirring impression, with appropriately abundant rhetorical gesturing. Rhetoric of a somewhat different kind is found in the Lincoln Portrait, a piece which perhaps works better in a live performance which can develop its own tensions of time and place. In the context of a recording the experience feels flat and mannered. Not that there is anything much wrong with this recording itself, which has an idiomatic speaker in Gregory Peck, captured in well balanced sound with the orchestra.

Quiet City is one of Copland's best pieces, beautifully constructed and atmospheric. Marriner and the Academy bring their considerable talents to the fore, in what is as beautiful a performance as the work can have received. It is followed in the sequence by that most celebrated of ballet scores, Appalachian String, in its revised version of orchestra rather than the original chamber version for thirteen instruments. Since each is equally valid, there is no problem with that decision, nor with the performance by Antal Dorati and the Detroit Orchestra. The slower music is wonderfully atmospheric, while there is a genuinely balletic quality to the folk rhythms which sometimes drive the music forward. The standard of the playing and the recorded sound are top class too.

The quality of the less celebrated American orchestras is also experienced in the splendidly vital performance by the Baltimore Symphony and David Zinman, of the Danzón Cubano. The Latin American aspect of Copland's creative output is important, and this a certainly a spirited example. Bernstein's stunning piano transcription of El salón México offers further evidence of this style, and is brilliantly played by Peter Jablonski.

For many the highlight of the collection will be the singing of the great Marilyn Horne, in the orchestral versions of five songs from the collection of Old American Songs. She brings the full range of personality to her performances, from the directness of Simple Gifts to the sentimentality of Long Time Ago, while her rendition of I Bought Me a Cat is simply a tour-de-force.


Terry Barfoot



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