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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
John Henry - A Railroad Ballad (1940) [13.48]
Lincoln Portrait [15.33]
The Promise of Living from The Tender Land [5.26]
Old American Songs - Set 1: The Boatmen's Dance; The Dodger; Long Time Ago; Simple Gifts; I Bought Me a Cat [11.27]
Jubilee Variations [1.27]
Ceremonial Fanfare [3.44]
An Outdoor Overture [8.47]
Katharine Hepburn (speaker)
Sherrill Milnes (bar)
Cincinnati Pops Orchestra/Erich Kunzel
rec. Music Hall, Cincinnati, 22 Sept 1985, 15-16 Nov 1986. DDD
TELARC CD-80117 [70.12]

Telarc's approach to reissues makes sense. Rather than repackaging they simply shift their back catalogue from full price down to bargain or mid-price. So it is that this disc, first issued in 1987, now reappears shifting down a price tier.

There are a number of novelties and rarities here that make this disc of interest, especially to Copland specialists. There is the late 1940s John Henry - a fantasy on the folk-song about the hero of American railroads who competed with a steam hammer. The work was commissioned by Alan Lomax during the high sunrise of the folk revival which also drew forth Roy Harris’s Railroad Man’s Ballad - this time on another hero, Casey Jones.

The Lincoln Portrait is delivered with gravelly defiance by Katharine Hepburn. She would not be my first choice. Margaret Thatcher also recorded this. For my money the versions with James Earl Jones on Delos, Charlton Heston on Vanguard or Gregory Peck on Sony are to be preferred.

One of my Desert Island Discs would be the opera The Tender Land in the version recorded by the composer in the 1960s. Of that work, ‘The Promise of Living’ - an exuberantly confident sunrise for full ensemble - stands close to the zenith of Copland’s work. However, rather like the RVW Serenade to Music, it does not 'speak' as it should in the purely orchestral version. It needs those voices; that humanising element to rise to its fullest rapturous expression. Kunzel and the Cincinnatians do it extremely well so if you must have the version shorn of voices this is the place to go.

Sherrill Milnes is glutinously lugubrious rather than feeling in The Boatmen's Dance. However that is the only demerit in the Set. He is very much better in the other songs; excellent in fact. A highly recommendable version. The Jubilee Variations were written as a cooperative work. Eugene Goossens, then conductor of the Cincinnati orchestra, composed a theme and Hanson, Schuman, Piston, Harris, Bloch and Copland wrote the variations in 1945 to produce a composite to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Composite British works of the same type are to be found in the Variations on ‘Cadet Rousselle’ (to which Goossens contributed a variant) and the Severn Bridge Variations (recently recorded on NMC). The Cincinnati set was thought lost until the parts were found in an attic of the Cincinnati Music Hall in 1986. This is the first recording. What a pity that we are given only the Copland ... but it is a smashing piece.

The Ceremonial Fanfare is plangent but not up to the level of populism achieved in Copland’s block-buster Fanfare for the Common Man. It seems to be a work coloured by disillusion; more grown up yet less magnificent than its popular cousin. It was written in 1969 for the centennial of the New York Metropolitan Museum.

The Outdoor Overture is a personal favourite of mine occupying a genre also inhabited by Moeran’s Overture to a Masque. While very good, this version is not better than the composer's own which is more taut and has snap to the rhythmic material. Still we are offered very good sound and I have to confess that the cool smooth trumpet solo of prairie loneliness has never been better done: try 1.02 and smooth 6.32 onwards. The Harris-like bark to the horns has never been caught as well as in the last pages of this version.

Telarc offer an attractive cover illustration with details from Winold Reiss's 1931 mosaic mural from the ceiling of Union Terminal Cincinnati. Those glowingly stylised frontiersmen pictured by Reiss are in truth little different from the horizon-fixed stares and heroic gleam of similar heroes pictured in official Soviet tableaux of the time. Copland would have smiled.

Rob Barnett

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