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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
The Tender Land Suite (I. Introduction and Love Music [10:11]; II. Party Scene [4:56]; III. Finale: The Promise of Living [5:32]) (1954/1955) [20:39]
Piano Concerto (1926) [16:54]
Old American Songs Vol. I (arr. I. Fine for chorus) (1950) [12:46] (I. The Boatmen's Dance* [3:25]; II. The Dodger* [2:24]; III. Long Time Ago [3:03]; IV. Simple Gifts [1:30]; V. I Bought Me a Cat [2:23])
Old American Songs Vol. II (arr. for chorus) (1952] [13:23] (I. The Little Horses (arr. R. Wilding-White) [2:53]; II. Zion's Walls (arr. G. Koponen) [2:03]; III. The Golden Willow Tree* † [3:40]; IV. At The River (arr. R. Wilding-White) [3:04]; V. Ching-a-ring Chaw (arr. I. Fine) [1:44])
Benjamin Pasternack (piano) (Tender); St. Charles Singers (Songs); * Nathaniel Stampley (baritone); † Jeffrey Hunt (tenor)
Elgin Symphony Orchestra/Robert Hanson
rec. 8-9 May 2007, Blizzard Theatre, Arts Centre, Elgin Community College, Illinois, USA.
Song texts included
Experience Classicsonline

Thankfully this isn’t the umpteenth recording of Appalachian Spring but a collection of lesser-known Copland. As always this music is quintessentially American, the suite from his opera The Tender Land, the bluesy piano concerto and the Old American Songs, the latter in choral arrangements. Appropriately enough the orchestra is the Illinois-based Elgin Symphony, which has embarked on an ambitious project called In Search of Our American Voice. Helping them in this endeavour are the St. Charles Singers, a multi-talented chamber choir founded in 1984.

Speaking of voices, Copland has a unique, instantly recognisable ‘voice’ of his own and that is clear from the first bars of The Tender Land suite. In his illuminating liner-notes Joseph Horowitz reminds us that although this has a Depression-era rural setting one could argue that, in part at least, it’s also Copland’s response to the McCarthyist witch hunt of the 1950s.

Interestingly the suite, arranged after the opera’s premiere in 1954, starts with the introduction to Act 3 and the love duet between the farm girl Laurie Moss and her drifter beau, Martin. The second movement is based on the party in Act II and the final movement comes from the quintet,’ ‘The Promise of Living’, at the end of Act I.

Whatever Copland’s intentions the music is not far removed from the Pennsylvanian hills of Appalachia, with its open, unpretentious scoring. The usual epithets ‘folksy’ and ‘homespun’ apply but there is also a degree of disquiet reflected in the brass at the start of this movement. The ensuing harp melodies are most affecting in their simplicity and directness, Robert Hanson securing warm, idiomatic playing from his orchestra.

The recording is clear and detailed, notably in the vigorous party music, and there’s no sign of strain or grain in the climaxes. Indeed, it’s an almost perfect acoustic for such a lucid score, the surging music of the last movement lovingly shaped and projected. This is vintage Copland and hearing this music may spur you to try the opera itself.

Horowitz makes the point that Copland’s piano concerto was somewhat eclipsed by Gershwin’s much better known effort, written the year before. It doesn’t have the latter’s Broadway-inspired razzamatazz but what it does have is a more sophisticated, cosmopolitan feel to it. The insouciant, bluesy first movement – introduced with the usual fanfare – has the pianist doodling quietly at the keyboard. Benjamin Pasternack captures the languor of this movement very well indeed, the piano ideally placed and faithfully recorded. Copland’s detailed scoring is wonderfully realised too, the more expansive moments thrillingly intense but never overheated.

The doodler is back in the second movement, his random notes followed by raucous music that has a real swing to it. The drums and percussion are certainly reminiscent of Gershwin but there is a fresh, individual quality to this concerto. Pasternack is suitably foot-stompin’ in those repeated jazzy phrases and the Elgin players give him wonderful support throughout. But it’s the final minute or so that’s the real tour de force, with the splendid percussion chasing the pianist all the way to the finish line.

This is exhilarating stuff and quite possibly the most enjoyable item on the disc – go on, give it another whirl – so the choral arrangements of the Old American Songs needs to be pretty special to top that. Most listeners probably know these pieces in their original scoring for voice and piano; if that’s the version you want do try Willard White on Chandos CHAN 8960.

Alas, first impressions of the choral arrangements aren’t very encouraging, baritone Nathaniel Stampley’s rather wide vibrato spoiling ‘The Boatmen’s Dance’. The St. Charles singers are another matter entirely; they are clear and nimble and, to be fair, Stampley does improve in ‘The Dodger’. Those who have heard Willard White in this repertoire will know just how much character and personality he brings to bear in these songs. Well worth seeking out.

The Elgin Symphony is never less than excellent and the chorus sing eloquently in the ballad ‘Long Time Ago’. Diction could be clearer but with such heartfelt singing it seems churlish to complain. And then there’s ‘Simple Gifts’, the Shaker hymn we know from Appalachian Spring, essayed here with a wonderful sense of innocence and optimism. They even manage the farmyard onomatopoeia of ’I Bought Me a Cat’ which, if you don’t mind this kind of silliness, will probably put a smile on your face.

Really it’s the chorus that makes these arrangements stand out; their bright, focused sound is invariably pleasing, even if the music doesn’t always sound like Copland. They are also suitably impassioned – febrile, even – in the Revivalist hymn ‘Zion’s Walls’. Then Stampley and tenor Jeffrey Hunt join them for a spirited rendition of ’The Golden Willow Tree’. Both soloists acquit themselves well here and for once the quirky orchestration actually sounds like authentic Copland.

Of the two remaining songs the hymn tune ‘At The River’ could have been penned by Charles Ives, such is its mix of devotional text and strange harmonies. Hanson and his band bring this music to a stirring close before launching into the utterly delightful ‘Ching-a-ring Chaw’. If you haven’t smiled so far then this will surely do the trick, the singing and playing pin-sharp and full of fun. An upbeat finale to an enchanting disc.

Minor caveats about the baritone aside this is another collection of American classics that deserves the highest praise. With exemplary playing, singing and an acoustic to match this is plainly indispensable. And the song texts are included as well, which is a welcome bonus. Buy it and enjoy.

Dan Morgan


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