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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Old American Songs (orchestral version): * First Set: 1 The Boatmen’s Dance (Minstrel Song) [3:04]; 2 The Dodger (Campaign Song) [2:15]; 3 Long Time Ago (Ballad) [3:04]; 4 Simple Gifts (Shaker Song) [1:36]; 5 I Bought Me A Cat (Children’s Song) [2:10]; Second Set:  6 The Little Horses (Lullaby) [2:49]; 7 Zion’s Walls (Revivalist Song) [1:56]; 8 The Golden Willow Tree (Anglo-American Ballad) [3:37]; 9 At The River (Hymn Tune) [2:52] 10 Ching-A-Ring Chaw (Minstrel Song) [1:33]; 11 Down A Country Lane [2:51]
Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson **: 12 Nature, The Gentlest Mother [3:55]; 13 There Came A Wind Like A Bugle [1:32]; 14 The World Feels Dusty [1:55]; 15 Heart, We Will Forget Him! [2:26]; 16 Dear March, Come In! [2:04]; 17 Sleep Is Supposed To Be [2:43]; 18 Going To Heaven! [2:50] 19 The Chariot [3:08]
Billy the Kid (selection): 20 Waltz - Molto moderato [3:51]; 21 Prairie Night – Molto moderato [4:42]; 22 Celebration Dance – Allegro [2:15]
Thomas Hampson (bar)*
Dawn Upshaw  (sop) **
Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra/Hugo Wolff
Recorded in the Ordway Music Theatre, St Paul, Minnesota, in September 1992 (Old American, Orchestral Pieces); September 1993 (Eight Poems)
WARNER APEX 2564 62089-2 [59:08]



I’ve always wanted to own the Old American Songs but couldn’t decide whether I wanted the piano or the orchestral version or if I preferred a male or female voice. I’m sure I’d enjoy any permutation but this version with Thomas Hampson and the St Paul Chamber Orchestra is surely the benchmark. It is simply superb and remains long in the memory. I’ve found myself singing them around the house, and even in my dreams! They are such disarmingly charming songs with a real sense of childlike wonder about them. Even the more serious of them has a simple yet direct appeal. And what an advocate they have in Hampson whose sense of timing is crucial in making them work at every level – just listen to his masterly handling of “The Boatman’s Dance” and “I Bought Me A Cat” to see what I mean. I also hope and trust you will enjoy as much as I do “The Dodger”, an absolutely hilarious and insightful statement about the nature of politicians, preachers and men, set to some deliciously tuneful music - as they all are.

In “Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson” Copland set works by the American poet for voice and orchestra from his 1950 work “Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson” for voice and piano. In the liner notes Vivian Perlis writes that the songs present special challenges for the performers as they are cast in “irregular meters and stanzas (with) wide jumps in the vocal lines, and difficult chromatic passages for the pianist”. Well the St Paul Chamber Orchestra have no problem with this orchestral version and Dawn Upshaw sings them as if they’d been written just for her. It is difficult to imagine anyone who could sing them more convincingly. She deals with the challenges as if they didn’t exist. All the words of all the songs are included in the booklet though one hardly needs them as Dawn Upshaw’s diction is superlative and nothing is lost in the singing. Their inclusion does however enable the listener to understand the motivation that convinced Copland to set this beautifully lyrical poetry. Although the work initially received a cool reception the songs are now recognised as being among Copland’s greatest achievements.

The two “fillers” on this disc are a selection of three pieces from Copland’s ballet “Billy the Kid”. He re-orchestrated these for a reduced orchestra and published them individually. They are lovingly played. I wish I had the whole ballet played by this great chamber orchestra that sadly receives no write-up in the booklet! The remaining work is the result of a 1962 commission from “Life” magazine to compose a short piece for piano students. This he later orchestrated for a youth orchestra series, and this has since become part of his catalogue of mature works.

I am often struck by the extent to which the U.S., being a new country (“Old American Songs” are, after all only about 150 or so years old!) has benefited from the influx of refugees from Europe, especially in musical terms. One can cite so many composers for the concert hall, film and TV and for the stage, whose origins lie in these countries. Copland is in the first rank of those whose skill has created an American music, quite distinct from that of their own roots. A great disc.

Steve Arloff



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