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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Music for the Theatre (1925) [22:13]
Quiet City (1940)* [10:02]
Music for Movies (1942) [16:57]
Clarinet Concerto (1947/1948)** [16:36]
*Chris Gekker (trumpet); Stephen Taylor (cor anglais); **William Blount (clarinet)
Orchestra of St Luke's/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. 1988 (reissue of MusicMasters MMD 60162L)
NIMBUS NI 2522 [66:56]
Experience Classicsonline

It's been my great pleasure to review a number of Copland discs over the past two years, all of which have confirmed the composer's unassuming talent. The music on this Nimbus reissue dates from Copland's most productive period, which included Dance Symphony, Piano Concerto, Billy the Kid, A Lincoln Portrait, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring.

Fresh from his sojourn in Paris Copland was determined to carve out a career as a serious composer. As a calling card Music for the Theatre is certainly arresting; it's brimful of youthful energy and confidence, a heady mix of jazz, blues and competing rhythms. It would make an even greater impact here if the recording sounded crisper and more immediate. In his review Bob Briggs suggests cranking up the volume but that merely emphasises the rather dry, recessed sound. As for the performance I would have preferred a more varied and flamboyant response to this music, from the jagged opening and Stravinskian rhythms of 'Prologue' - shades of El Salón México - to the trenchant tunes of 'Dance'.

The recording is also a little muffled at times - listen to the drum thwacks in 'Dance' and the opening of Music for Movies - but in mitigation the dance rhythms are irresistibly sprung. The more inward 'Interlude' has some lovely moments, the slapstick of 'Burlesque' not as riotous as it can be. And if the latter has a parallel in the silent films of Mack Sennett, 'Epilogue' surely looks towards the unsettling world of German Expressionist cinema, so well captured in Marin Alsop's Naxos account of Dance Symphony (see review).

The music for Quiet City, written to accompany an experimental play by Irwin Shaw, is supposed to evoke a late-night urban landscape. Trumpeter Chris Gekker sounds suitably restless and, when required, plays with a quiet, singing line. Ditto Stephen Taylor, whose cor anglais is wonderfully warm and expressive. Here the distant, somewhat detached, balance seems much more appropriate; indeed, I wondered just how much of Quiet City can be heard in Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 2, 'Age of Anxiety', written nine years later.

As Copland biographer Vivian Perlis points out the composer had no qualms about writing for Hollywood. Music for Movies is a five-movement suite drawn from his three major film scores - The City, Of Mice and Men and Our Town. The opening of 'New England Countryside' celebrates rural life with simple, majestic music that looks forward to the ballet Appalachian Spring (1944). This enduring, homespun quality is reprised in the gentle, rocking figures of 'Barley Wagons', which is followed by the urban bustle and parp of horns in 'Sunday Traffic'. Meanwhile 'The Story of Grover's Corner' has a disarming dignity nicely captured by Dennis Russell Davies and his band. And if you think the playing has been a tad underwhelming so far then the catchy rhythms of 'Threshing Machines' will surely change your mind.

Before moving on to the Clarinet Concerto I must confess to some misgivings about the broader presentation of this music. Every now and then I longed for a more unbuttoned response to these scores, a little more brio and bounce. In terms of sheer elegance the first movement of the concerto - written for the legendary Benny Goodman - has seldom sounded so beguiling. Although Blount gives a low-key performance with an unshowy cadenza I found myself warming to his unassuming approach. No, it's not in the same league as Goodman's version for Copland - Sony 46559 - or Stanley Drucker's for Bernstein - DG 431 672 - but it's enjoyable nonetheless.

That last comment is true of this disc as a whole, but the playing and sound quality still leave something to be desired. Indeed, first impressions are of a much earlier digital recording, with an unfocused bass and bright treble. The unfolding Copland series from Naxos is particularly rewarding; I suggest you look there if you prefer a more immediate and spontaneous approach to this music.

Dan Morgan 


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