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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924) [23.33]
Orchestral Variations (1957) [12.35]
Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2) (1931-33) [15.22]
Symphonic Ode (1927-9, rev. 1955) [18.18]
Jonathan Scott (organ)
BBC Philharmonic/John Wilson
rec. 18 January 2016, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, (Organ Symphony); 13 and 17 January, BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCity, Salford Quays (other works)

Copland’s most enduring works may yet prove to be his cowboy ballets, or rather the suites from them, written in what he called his ‘vernacular’ style in the 1930s and 1940s. He had another side to him: he started as a serious modernist, a pupil of Nadia Boulanger and so as it were a grand-pupil of Stravinsky. Throughout his life he continue to write works that challenged and were intended to challenge lovers of serious music. The works on this recording are among this group.

The disc is labelled ‘Orchestral Works 2 – Symphonies’ on the front of the booklet, and ‘Symphonies Vol. 1’ on the spine, so it is worth setting out exactly what Copland composed in this genre, because his numbering is not straightforward. These are the works actually titled 'symphony', with dates of composition, not premiere:-
Organ Symphony (Symphony for organ and orchestra) (1924)
Dance Symphony (1925) (un-numbered, based on music for the ballet Grohg)
Symphony No.1 for orchestra (1928) (a re-working of the Organ symphony with the organ part removed)
Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2) (1931–33)
Third Symphony (1944–1946)

Here we have two of these five symphonic works, although the Symphonic Ode is longer than the Short Symphony and of equal weight. The Orchestral Variations are a much later orchestration by the composer of a piano work of 1931. All these pieces are in a serious modernist vein and feature Copland’s characteristic rhythmic vitality, sometimes expressed in such complex rhythms that two of the works, the Short Symphony and the Symphonic Ode, were first pronounced unplayable. Orchestras are now much more adept at such rhythms, having learnt them from Stravinsky and they hold no terrors for the BBC Philharmonic here, nor need they for the listener. The harmony, on the other hand, is often harsh and dissonant, particularly in slower movements. However, it is never as severe as in some Schoenberg or Bartók; think rather of Hindemith or Prokofiev.

In the Organ symphony, the organ is integrated into the texture; this is not a concerto, and the organ does not even have a concertante part as in Saint-Saëns’ Organ symphony. There is a gentle prelude, a slightly longer Stravinskian scherzo and a finale which, after an introduction, settles down to a kind of march, not loud but sinister with its obsessive phrases and peculiar scoring. This leads to a chase, like that in Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, but not as fierce. The booklet gives the full registration of the organ used, the Marcussen and Son, one at the Bridgewater Hall and an article by the organist Jonathan Scott on playing this work.

The Symphonic Ode is a tougher nut, full of grinding dissonances and complex rhythms. It plays continuously, though divided into five sections. The original version was for a large orchestra, including eight horns, five trumpets and two tubas; what we have here is the 1955 revision which reduced the orchestration. I must confess a lingering desire to hear the original. The raucous ending would, however, have been even more strident.

The Short symphony is a different proposition: tricksy rather than fierce. Though much more light-hearted than the Symphonic Ode, it was also too difficult for orchestras of the time and it did not get a proper performance until Bernstein, Copland’s protégé, gave the American concert premiere in 1957. The idiom is described in the booklet as ‘jazz-meets-Stravinsky’. This is the most obviously enjoyable of the works here.

I end with the Orchestral Variations, which is another tough nut. There is an original theme, twenty variations and a coda. Copland never expected his piano original to be popular, and indeed Walter Gieseking refused to learn it because it was so dissonant. However, pianists sympathetic to modernism adopted it and it was also made the basis for a ballet by Martha Graham. Copland orchestrated it in response to a commission from Robert Whitney of the Louisville Orchestra. This is a good work, worth persevering with.

John Wilson has made a name for himself by his meticulous recreations of the film music of Hollywood’s golden age but he by no means confines himself to light music. His other specialisation is English music of the twentieth century. He gives fine, confident performances of works which the orchestra cannot have known well before, if at all. The recordings are big and bold as they need to be. The booklet is helpful. There are several other performances of all the works here, though not of exactly this programme. There are two in particular I would point to: Michael Tilson Thomas’s "Copland the Modernist", with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (RCA 09026 68541 2), has three of the four works here, with the Piano Concerto replacing the Organ Symphony; he has recorded that work too but separately. Leonard Slatkin’s disc with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra of the earlier Copland symphonies has the same programme as here but with the unnumbered Dance Symphony instead of the Symphonic Ode; this is arguably the more logical programme. Both these discs are twenty years old but none the worse for that and honours are even in the performances. While these are out of print secondhand copies can be found. So John Wilson’s new addition to his Copland series is very welcome. I look forward to his continuing, not only with Copland’s other symphonies, but also with the composer’s later challenging works, Connotations and Inscape, of which we lack really satisfactory versions.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Ian Lace



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