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Aaron COPLAND (1900 - 1990)
Chamber Music of Aaron Copland

Movement for String Quartet (1923) [5.52]
Prelude for Piano Trio (1924) [4.39]
Pieces (2) for Violin and Piano (1926) [10.09]
Vocalise for Flute and Piano (1928) [4.53]
Pieces (2) for String Quartet (1928) [8.29]
Vitebsk for Piano Trio (1928) [11.55]
Sextet for String Quartet, Clarinet and Piano (1937 rev.) [14.25]
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1943) [19.14]
Quartet for Piano and Strings (1950) [21.08]
Duo for Flute and Piano (1971) [14.34]
Threnodies (2) for Flute and String Trio (1971) [7.39]
Derek Bermel, clarinet; Michael Boriskin, piano; Paul Lustig Dunkel, flute; Nicholas Kitchen, violin; Wilhelmina Smith, cello.
Borromeo String Quartet: Nicolas Kitchen, Wil Fedkenheuer, vv; Mai Motobuchi, vla; Yeesun Kim, vc., assisted by Jennifer Frautchi, Curtis Macomber, vv; Hsin-Yun Huang, Cynthia Phelps, vla.
Rec. Dec 2000 - Mar 2003, various locations in New York and Boston, USA.
Notes in English. Photo of composer and artists. No timings.*
ARABESQUE Z6794-2 [60.18 + 62.33]

 

If you are not greatly impressed by the orchestral works of Copland, youíll get no argument from me. The best thing of his Iíve heard is the CBS monophonic Bernstein LP recording of El Salón México which genuinely captures the zaniness of ethnic Mexican musical celebration. Along with Roy Harris, Copland is often associated with the "American Style" - that is, hymn-book harmonies and too many open fourths and fifths ó never mind that American composers such as Charles Ives, Alan Hovhaness, Marga Richter, Philip Glass, George Chadwick, Amy Beach or Charles Martin Loeffler, had no need of it. Appalachian Spring is a long drink of water for one folk-song, Rodeo is obvious and banal. On occasion Iíve enjoyed the Dance Symphony. The Piano Concerto was one of the works specifically parodied in Shostakovichís Piano Concerto #1 and is practically never heard these days.

Coplandís Third Symphony, containing the famous Fanfare for the Common Man (A definitive exposition of "American Style"), is a sturdy work and finds its most effective expression in the recording with Antal Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, originally released as LP MG 50018, unfortunately out of print for many years. When the Mercury Living Presence CD reissue series was first announced, this was one of the recordings specifically mentioned to be released, yet we have not seen it yet. Hello! Anybody over there listening? Or how about Naxos Historical?

All of which is to say that Coplandís chamber music is something entirely different. This is all great stuff ó varied harmonies and no intervalic banalities ó well worth hearing again and again. These two disks contain every published chamber work for six players or less, arranged on the disks in chronological sequence. All of the performances are superb and committed.

The Movement for String Quartet resembles in style, mood, and quality the best of Shostakovich. The Prelude for Piano Trio reminds me of the beautifully mysterious passages in violin sonatas by Ernest Bloch and Henry Cowell (Play it in a music quiz and NOBODY will guess Copland). The Nocturne for Violin and Piano starts out with blues chords in the piano, but stays clear of identifiable Gershwinisms and stays close to the mood of the previous piece. On the other hand Ukulele Serenade is blue jazz violin and honky-tonk piano all the way to the rodeo. Vocalise has a dreamy, wistful, improvisatory sense to it, more impressionistic (and less disciplined) than Debussy. The Lento molto for String Quartet is quiet but not mysterious, and the Rondino is well structured and classic in feeling. Vitebsk uses a slightly prepared piano and in the first section is "Shostakovich meets Prokofiev" in feeling; more Shostakovich with Cowellian tone clusters in the second, slower section; and utterly unclassifiable in the delightfully vigorous dance that is section three, finishing with a return to the second style molto maestoso elegiaco** in section four. The allegro vivace of the Sextet is the first work in the set easily identifiable as Copland with some sections very reminiscent of Rodeo; but the lento is prismatic, elegiac and evocative; the sextet finishes off with a marcato movement which is an intriguing mixture of the two styles.

Of the more substantial works on disc two, the first movement of the Violin Sonata is very identifiably "American" sounding, but not as good as the Cowell Sonata (but then, hardly anything is). The second movement, lento, is fragile, gorgeous, almost reminiscent of Arvo Pärt. The allegretto giusto finale is very original, the closest weíve come so far (that is, pretty close) to a fugue.

The first movement adagio serio of the Piano Quartet is just that, a quiet conversation among friends that heats up and becomes anguished, then resigned; a mini operatic scene. The following movement is more giusto than allegro and sounds like a political argument ó that ebbs and flows ó at a family reunion. The final movement non troppo lento sounds like the next morning when everyoneís sorry for all the things they said the night before, realising that the next time they see each other, it will be another funeral. Set to words, gestures and voices, this work could make a tidy chamber opera/ballet about an extended family gathered together to bury a loved one, with the three acts subtitled, Mourning Before The Funeral, At The Wake, and Sad Parting. The notes suggest that the work began as an experiment in 12-tone composition, but I didnít pick that up from listening.

The Duo begins with a long unmetered flute solo, with "Fanfare for the Common Man" hiding just offstage. The piano comes in and the two dance as in a Martha Graham ballet. The balletic feeling continues through the remaining movements, with the flute definitely as the star, the piano supporting. This is not surprising because Copland wrote much ballet music, some of it much more sophisticated than Rodeo. This work was Coplandís last organised composition and he tended to look back at earlier works. The In Memoriam Igor Stravinsky and In Memoriam Beatrice Cunningham are brief occasion pieces both with a mood of light sadness.

All of which goes to say that if you thought two hours of Copland would be too much of just one thing you could hardly be more wrong.

Also I must comment that I appreciate the organisation of the music on the disks in strict chronological order. As a former librarian and serious collector, I donít see much value in these "programmed" concerts***. I am most concerned with being able to find a work quickly when I want to hear it. Very few will want to listen uninterruptedly to two hours of Copland chamber music at one sitting, however the works are ordered. Although itís a surprisingly intriguing and pleasant two hours.

And, last but not least, the double jewelcase is of a new design Iíve not seen before, much more durable and less likely to come apart or break in handling.

*I had to copy them down for you from the player listing on the computer screen.

**In this and much of what follows Iím using these terms descriptively, not quoting from the score, to which I donít at the moment have access.

***There are rare exceptions, of course, most notably Paul Jordanís take on Orgelbüchlein.

Paul Shoemaker



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