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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Symphony for Organ and Orchestra [23:33]
Orchestral Variations [12:35]
Short Symphony [15:22]
Symphonic Ode [18:18]
Jonathan Scott (organ)
BBC Philharmonic/John Wilson
rec. Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. 16 January 2016 (Organ Symphony), MediaCity UK, Salford (other works). 13/17 January 2016

The Symphony for Organ and Orchestra was Copland’s first symphonic score. It was premièred by its dedicatee, and Copland’s former teacher, Nadia Boulanger in New York in 1925. That performance was not an unqualified success, largely because the organ malfunctioned and the performance had to be stopped. But with the work, Copland very effectively announced his presence on the scene as the first major American symphonist of the 20th century and the new young voice of American music. It was to lead to a whole plethora of major orchestral scores over the next decades, the first few of which are presented on this disc, the second in Chandos’s new survey of Copland’s orchestral music.

The release is timely; for Copland seems to have fallen a little below the radar in recent years, and the time seems ripe for a reappraisal of the music he wrote beyond the populist ballet scores such as Appalachian Spring and Rodeo.

John Wilson shows remarkably strong Copland credentials in all these performances, but nowhere is this more powerfully exhibited than in the Organ Symphony. For many years, the Bernstein recording with E. Power Biggs at the organ dominated the catalogues, and while that may still be of interest on historical grounds, for my money this is in every single aspect infinitely superior. For a start, there is Wilson’s own very personal stamp on the music, giving it weight and credibility. Then there is the gloriously strident brass playing of the BBC Philharmonic, which gives it an air of American brashness. But the real clincher is Jonathan Scott’s vivid displaying of the full resources of the fine organ of Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall—infinitely preferable, I have to say, to that which Simon Preston employed for the RCA performance with Leonard Slatkin and the St Louis Symphony in 1996. There is a real sense of integration between organ and orchestra and a sense that Scott is as familiar with what is going on in the orchestra as is Wilson himself. The cross-rhythms, the huge cluster chords, and the complex writing for the organ all work together to create a really stunning performance. The final toccata-like contest between organ and orchestra, above violently pounding drums, is one of the most exciting aural spectacles I have enjoyed on disc for a very long time. The sense that everything is happening all at once in a kind of mad scene of organised chaos takes the breath away.

The Organ Symphony was recorded in the Bridgewater Hall, but the move to Salford and the BBC Philharmonic’s own studio in MediaCity UK for the other works on the disc does nothing to improve the sound, which seems in comparison very dry and brittle. This, probably, is a good thing in the case of the Orchestral Variations, Copland’s own arrangement of his Piano Variations of 1930. The BBC Philharmonic comes up with some pretty spectacular playing here.

Copland’s debt to Stravinsky is vividly portrayed in the crisp, jagged rhythms of the Short Symphony, which dates from the early 1930s and is dedicated to Carlos Chavez. Blocks of orchestral sound pop up seemingly at random around the stage, sometimes with whole sections of the orchestra and sometimes perky, almost playful interjections from individual instruments. Here, the whole thing has a coherence and sense of direction, which makes for some very arresting listening indeed. The remarkable sure-footedness of the BBC Philharmonic is one of the more impressive elements in this very distinguished performance. It is particularly interesting to hear in this early work hints of the simple tenderness which was to become such a feature of Copland’s later and more populist scores.

The final work on the disc is the Symphonic Ode of the late 1920s which was regarded as so far ahead of its time that it disappeared from public view. It was only in 1955 that Copland revised it in the form we hear on this disc. Even then, it has largely escaped the notice of those in the recording studio, and while there are fairly recent recorded performance directed by Gerard Schwarz (with the Seattle Symphony on Naxos) and Michael Tilson Thomas (with the San Francisco Orchestra on RCA), this is the one which, for me, sells the work most persuasively. Again, John Wilson seems to have evolved a distinctive yet wholly sympathetic feel for the sound-world of early Copland and brings a sense of strong coherence to the often very abstract ideas in Copland’s music. I particularly admire the way he builds up over the work’s 18 minute duration to explode into a truly triumphant ending.

If Copland’s music is due for a reappraisal, this splendid disc provides an immensely compelling argument in its favour.

Marc Rochester

Previous reviews: Ian Lace ~ Stephen Barber



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