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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Symphony No. 1 (1928) [25:26]
Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2) (1933) [15:31]
Dance Symphony [1922-25) [17:25] (I. Dance of the Adolescent [6:56]; II. Dance of the Girl Who Moves as if in a Dream [5:12]; III. Dance of Mockery [5:17])
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. 30-31 March 2007, The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, UK
Experience Classicsonline

Copland’s Symphony No. 3 remains his most performed - the opening of the fourth movement based on the Fanfare for the Common Man. Inexplicably his Symphony No. 1, a re-orchestration of the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924), is much less familiar, though the Dance Symphony seems to have fared a little better. For my money, though, the latter – derived from Copland’s ballet Grohg, itself inspired by F.W. Murnau’s vampire classic Nosferatu – is the most fascinating piece here. Interestingly, the film’s subtitle is eine Symphonie des Grauens, or Symphony of Horror.

At the helm is Marin Alsop who, as a Bernstein protégé, has assimilated her mentor’s instinctive feel for Copland’s music in general and his infectious rhythms in particular. And although she is now installed in Baltimore, Alsop continues to make fine discs with her erstwhile band, the Bournemouth Symphony; this includes an earlier recording of Copland’s Third Symphony (Naxos 8.559106).

The quiet opening to the Prelude of Symphony No. 1 is pure Copland – gentle, lyrical, expansive – with some marvellous playing from flute and strings. The slow, rocking figures are nicely done, too, but the animated Scherzo reminds us that this is the composer fresh from his sojourn in Paris. The pounding, cymbal-capped climax at 1:57 isn’t that far from the primitivism of Stravinsky’s Rite, as is the sinuous woodwind writing thereafter.

Even here there is the transparency of texture we know from the later works, such as Appalachian Spring, with a hint of the raunchy rhythms of El Salón México. The bracing brass writing of the Finale has the effect of a tangy sorbet, cleansing the palate of any lingering sweetness. Copland’s is a direct, unassuming talent and even his more daring music has a lucidity that is most endearing. Alsop judges the first grinding climax very well indeed, investing the jaunty rhythms that follow with plenty of bounce. But it’s the final peroration – baying brass aided and abetted by snare and bass drums – that provides the biggest shot of adrenaline thus far.

Copland’s Short Symphony may be on a smaller scale but its rhythms are much more complex than anything we’ve yet heard. Alsop and the Bournemouth orchestra relish the mix of piquant harmonies and odd juxtapositions that make up the first movement. They also capture the sense of uneasy calm in the second – the warmth and amplitude of the recording very telling at the expansive climax – before returning to the lopsided rhythms and quirky humour of the first. This is music that cries out for the irrepressible, loose-limbed Lenny, who really knew how to spring these rhythms to great effect. That said, Alsop and her band of Brits do a sterling job.

The Dance Symphony has its roots in German Expressionist cinema but it’s no mere accompaniment to a silent film. Certainly in terms of structure it feels and sounds symphonic, not at all like a collection of dances. The yearning clarinet figure in the ‘Dance of the Adolescent’ is magically played but the masterstroke comes with the rippling harp entry at 2:17. Instantly we are pitched into the flickering world of Caligari and Nosferatu, both unsettling and unsettled. There is real pathos too – after all we do feel some sympathy for the monster, be it Nosferatu, Frankenstein or King Kong. The glockenspiel adds special colour to this strange danse macabre.

Listening to the ghostly ‘Dance of the Girl Who Moves as if in a Dream’ I was reminded of the quieter moments of Bartók’s ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. There is an underlying menace here – listen to those tolling woodwind figures – although there’s little explicit Bartókian barbarism. Still, the climax to the slinkily provocative ‘Dance of Mockery’ should send a shiver up your spine; it all ends in a paroxysm of orchestral violence.

A varied and engrossing survey of early Copland, well played and superbly recorded. Put away those much-played CDs of Appalachian Spring and try some earlier pieces instead – you won’t regret it. I’d put this newcomer alongside the Naxos recording of The Tender Land Suite and Old American Songs (see review) as some of the most rewarding Copland I’ve heard in a long time. Both discs are much-needed additions to the composer’s ever-fascinating canon.

Dan Morgan 



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