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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
The Tender Land Suite (1954) [20:39]
Piano Concerto (1926) [16:54]
Old American Songs Vol.1 (1950/2) [12:46]
Old American Songs Vol.2 (1950/2) [13:23]
Benjamin Pasternack (piano)
St. Charles Singers
Elgin Symphony Orchestra/ Robert Hanson
rec. Blizzard Theatre, Elgin Community College, Illinois, 8-9 May 2007
NAXOS 8.559297 [63:42]
Experience Classicsonline

I was full of admiration for Benjamin Pasternack’s previous CD of Copland’s solo piano music; indeed, it became one of my discs of the year and has been played often since (see review). So this new release already created some anticipation, as I have always had a soft spot for the rarely heard Piano Concerto as well as looking forward to the other works here.
In fact, the planning on this new Naxos release is very intelligent indeed. I don’t recall having heard the suite from Copland’s little-known opera The Tender Land before, but suffice to say it is full of what might be termed the best of his popular style. As befits the subject matter – the vicissitudes of a simple farming family in the Depression-hit South of the 1930s – the music is redolent of Appalachian Spring, the film music to Of Mice and Men and other ‘wide-open’ scores of the 1940s and 1950s. The Suite he extracted from the opera, which was not a success after its New York premiere in 1954, is in three movements. The Introduction is replete with those open fourths and fifths in the brass, the Love Music that follows it enjoying the simplest and most affecting of melodic lines. The lively rhythms of the Party Scene which follows could be out of Billy the Kid, whilst the ringing affirmation of the Finale: The Promise of Living, are about as American as Copland ever got. It is well worth making an acquaintance with and note writer Joseph Horowitz admits to preferring it to the flawed opera.
The Piano Concerto is firmly rooted in the 1920s, though once again the glorious introductory bars, where horns, trumpets and trombones exchange bold fanfares, points to his later style. It’s usually referred to as his jazziest work, and there are lots of elements to back this up, particularly the second movement, where Copland clearly has Gershwin in his sights, though with very different results. But the opening movement, for all its ‘blue note’ leaning, has more in common with the angular dissonance of the Piano Variations, written just a few short years later. The Concerto is a marvellous work, full of New York swagger but tightly constructed – rather like the more popular Clarinet Concerto – and it’s a real mystery why it doesn’t crop up on more concert programmes. There have been some good recordings over the years, including the benchmark version from the composer himself with Bernstein at the helm, though it does sound rather aggressively bright by modern standards. I’ve tended to stick by an excellent RCA recording from Garrick Ohlsson and the San Francisco Symphony under Tilson-Thomas, part of an excellent Copland survey he undertook in the early 1990s (Copland – The Modernist, c/w Orchestral Variations, Symphonic Ode and Short Symphony). I have to say this newcomer runs it close, with orchestral playing every bit as solid and assured. The string tone of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, another new name to me, is superb and the brass and wind sections are easily as sonorous and colourful as their more famous counterparts. Pasternack shows once again that he is completely inside Copland’s style, and the very tricky passages of the second movement are just as effective as Ohlsson’s more overtly virtuosic reading.
The disc rounds off its rarity value in style with arrangements of Copland’s popular Old American Songs, originally for voice and piano but here transcribed to include chorus and orchestra by Irving Fine, R. Wilding-White and Glenn Koponen. It works very well, with the St Charles Singers relishing the allusions to folk ballads, minstrel tunes, hymns and children’s tunes. The lyrics – included in the booklet - may be pure cornball in places (‘My pig says ‘griffey, griffey…’) but they’re great fun and the chorus approach them in this spirit.
The recorded sound is warm and generous, coping with the thicker textures well, and good liner-notes complete a very desirable Copland selection.
Tony Haywood

see also review by Dan Morgan (July Bargain of the Month)

Reviews of recordings of other Copland works on Naxos 

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