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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Dance Panels (1959) [29:06]
Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950) [21:39]
Short Symphony (1933) [16 :00]
Helene Schneiderman (mezzo)
Orchestra of St. Luke’s/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. no information supplied
NIMBUS NI 2545 [66:47]

Experience Classicsonline

No recording details are given for this release, but it seems to be a straight reissue of a MusicMasters disc from 1992. It’s a very welcome one.

The earliest work on the disc is the Short Symphony. Charles Brider, in his engaging booklet note, tells us that this work was identified in a 1946 symposium of eminent American musicians as one of the most seriously neglected major works of its time. It is Copland’s first essay in symphonic form and its three movements amount only to a little over a quarter of an hour. Its complexity ensured that a couple of planned early performances were abandoned, and though this might surprise us listening to it now, there’s no doubt that the first and last movements do set down serious rhythmic challenges for any ensemble. There are many moments in these two movements that could almost be by Stravinsky - with signs even of The Rite of Spring in the last finale - but those clean, open intervals, in the melodic line, the harmony and scoring, which we associate with Copland, and which we might also be guilty of associating with imagined wide, open spaces of the American landscape, are very much present too. The slow movement is very beautiful indeed and rises to a fine climax. The work receives an outstanding performance here, but potential buyers should be aware that it is not the original version of the symphony which is given, but an arrangement by the conductor for chamber orchestra. The composer apparently gave his blessing both to the project and to the result, stating, so we are told, that for much of the time he could not tell the difference between the two versions, hmm … In any event, the piece certainly works in this version, especially given this fizzing performance.

When the American poet Emily Dickinson died in 1886 at the age of fifty-six she had led a solitary life for many years, not leaving her home, receiving few visitors and shunning all contact with people she didn’t know. Very little of her work was published in her lifetime, and indeed much of her mature work was discovered in her desk after her death. Though her poems deal with a number of themes - in Copland’s words “…nature, death, life, eternity” - there is about them also a feeling of the essential loneliness of the creative artist, combined with the enclosed, almost claustrophobic atmosphere born of the way of life she adopted. Over several years Copland set twelve of her poems to music for voice and piano, assembling them into a cycle in 1950. It is an exquisite work in which the composer almost miraculously found exactly the right tone for these very particular poems. He later produced versions for voice and chamber orchestra of eight of these songs, the version recorded here, and though the orchestrations are masterly - and quite recognisably Copland - I have always found that the essentially public utterance of a work for voice and orchestra suits these poems much less well than the more intimate voice and piano duo. Such features as the repeated triplets in the accompaniment of Dear March, come in, for example, sound prosaic and studied here, where a fine accompanist gives them a spontaneous feel when played on the piano. Helene Schneiderman, a name new to me, has a voice of the utmost beauty which she uses with great intelligence, and listening to her in these songs brings a lot of pleasure. She enters very well into the spirit of the words, but perhaps in too general a way: there seems little doubt that Dawn Upshaw, for example (last encountered on a Teldec Ultima double CD 3984-28169-5) makes more of each phrase and each word. Then Miss Schneiderman is listed as a mezzo-soprano, and takes the lower octave alternative for the final note of the work. This is a real pity, and not the minor point that it might seem. This is a beautiful performance, but there is rather more to these songs than comes out here, and in any event getting to know the original twelve-song cycle in its piano version is essential. There are many performances of this, but my perhaps unlikely favourite is by Robert Tear and Philip Ledger, originally recorded on the Argo label, and last seen on Belart 461 6102.

Dance Panels, the latest of the three works presented, is a ballet, but one which, unlike the composer’s other ballets, tells no story. I had never heard this work before, and I am very much taken by it. The first of the seven short pieces of which it is composed is austere in style, with repeated unisons like sad little fanfares. A tender, smoothly flowing piece in triple time follows, which in turn is followed by a delightful scherzo. Wistful sadness returns for the exquisitely scored fourth piece, and the explosive rhythms of the fifth bring further signs of Stravinsky’s influence. The piece closes with a curious cymbal and side drum tattoo. A short, lyrical piece then prepares the way for the challenging finale, five fast beats to the bar before a lovely, and somewhat unexpected, calm close. It is one of the lesser known of Copland’s works, but a most rewarding one. The performance is superb as is the whole disc.

William Hedley 

see also reviews by William Kreindler

see also Review by Nick Barnard (August Bargain of the Month)


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