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American Music of the XXth Century
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Adagio for Strings (1938) [7:10]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Fanfare for the Common Man (1943) [3:07]
Appalachian Spring (1944) [26:01]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Candide overture (1956) [4:07]
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1958-61) [24:36]
Tobias PICKER (b.1954)
Old and lost rivers (1986) [6:36]
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Jukka-Pekka Saraste (Barber); London Philharmonic/Carl Davis (Fanfare); London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox (Appalachian); Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton (Candide); Minnesota Orchestra/Edo de Waart (Dances); Houston Symphony/Christoph Eschenbach (Rivers)
rec. dates and locations not given
VIRGIN CLASSICS 391339 2 [71:52]

Moving as we do towards the end of the noughties, it is hardly surprising that our perspective on the last century is in some ways in a state of reflective evaluation. This pleasant compilation safely covers the middle-of-the-road when it comes to American Music of the XXth Century, and only the noise of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is likely to wake elderly relatives from their afternoon nap, dreaming about how much better it all was back then.

This hodge-podge of orchestras and conductors has been compiled from recordings from between 1988 and 1991, all recent enough, all well played and for the most part decently recorded. The programming is a bit strange, with the Adagio for Strings being blown out of the water by that Fanfare, but it does balance the neo-Copland Old and lost rivers with which the disc calmly fizzles out. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Adagio for Strings is possibly the least satisfactory track, good enough as a performance but not really jerking any tear-ducts, and with a strangely right-channel heavy recording which makes it sound like having a balcony seat behind the double basses.

Carls Davis starts the disc proper with a brash Fanfare for the Common Man, which is how it should be – cracking brass which makes the hairs on your neck stand on end. This Fanfare might just have been a tad swifter and tighter, and as I say, it does stand like a pillar of lead between the emotional Adagio and the gentle opening of Appalachian Spring, but it will certainly blow away the cobwebs on your woofers.

Richard Hickox’s Appalachian Spring pretty much presses all the right buttons. It doesn’t quite remove my current favourite, Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra on RCA. The more searching moments can seem to pass by without making as much of an impression, but with gorgeous solos, plenty of bounce and a warm sense of chamber musicianship where it counts this is a version to savour.

Leonard Bernstein’s inevitable show-stopping contribution opens with a terrific performance of the overture to Candide, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Litton having great fun with Bernstein’s virtuoso orchestration. Edo de Waart is not a conductor I would immediately associate with West Side Story, but the Symphonic Dances have plenty of pizzazz, with the Minnesota Orchestra having the idiom and essential toughness of the musical content deep in their veins. Richly recorded, this is a source which Virgin would appear to have mined at least twice already, on one of those ‘Ultraviolet’ discs, and a two CD set from 1999 which also has the Litton’s Overture and Hickox’s Appalachian Spring. This performance deserves its continued place in the catalogue however, with gorgeous expressive playing in the ‘Somewhere’ and Meeting Scene movements, a punishing Mambo and Rumble and a beatific Finale.

Old and lost rivers is one of Tobias Picker’s most popular works. A kind of tone poem, it covers similar ground to Copland at his more reflective, and is aptly described as a ‘Texan pastorale’ by Anthony Short in his booklet notes. It also sums up the content of this disc well enough – enjoyable and safe as houses. If you are looking for a place to find a whole bunch of American classics on one well-filled and nicely presented compilation then this is as good a start as any. Do check your shelves first however, there’s a chance you may find you have most of it already.

Dominy Clements  


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