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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924) [23.33]
Orchestral Variations (1957) [12.35]
Short Symphony (1931-33) [15.22]
Symphonic Ode (1927, revised 1955) [18.18]
Jonathan Scott (organ)
BBC Philharmonic/John Wilson
rec. January 2016, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, (Organ Symphony); BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCity, Salford Quays

On the surface these are ‘difficult’ works - difficult for listeners and performers alike - quite unlike Appalachian Spring for instance. Reading Mervyn Cooke’s learned notes before listening to the music I began to wonder what I had let myself in for not being familiar with the music on this album. Cooke comments on how orchestras cringed at each one of the four pieces here. However times and tastes change and John Wilson, meticulous and conscientiously skilled at researching, reinstating and arranging scores, has clearly delved deeply into the structure of this music. He has delivered performances that have clarity, lucidity and an engaging vivacity that holds the ear. He is aided by a bright and very detailed recording from the Chandos engineers.

It will be remembered that Copland studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in 1921-24. Back in America Copland remained in contact with Boulanger and composed his Organ Symphony for her. When she arrived in New York to play the Aeolian Hall organ, the instrument played up and she had to fix it. The ‘squally’ Symphony must have bewildered and frightened the gentle, conservative ladies at that Sunday afternoon concert. A reviewer commented that the ending sounded as though it was “… screaming like a wild banshee …” Boulanger, eminently practical, had commented to Copland, “… don’t be too complicated …” and warned him that “one cannot rehearse very much and orchestras are not ready to handle certain problems properly …” Jonathan Scott, the organist, on this recording contributes a note of his own about the extraordinary writing of the organ part including asking for fulsome dexterity of hand calling for the performer “potentially to play (or miss) notes on four keyboards at once." Scott's scintillating performance utilises the Bridgewater Hall’s Marcussen & Son concert organ’s impressive facility from gentle treble to full earth-trembling swell in the impressive finale. The booklet contains a full visual description and specification of this organ. The influence of Stravinsky is apparent and as well as the Finale, I enjoyed the accessible bouncy, breezy Scherzo middle movement with its suggestions of birdsong.

Intellectual in intent, Copland’s Orchestral Variations were originally written as Piano Variations in 1930. Copland gave the work’s premiere himself after Walter Gieseking had despaired of it, writing to the composer that no audience – “… would accept such crude dissonances without protesting …” Many years later, in 1957, Copland arranged the work for orchestra for the Louisville Symphony Orchestra under Robert Whitney (review). A local newspaper commented, “New-Old Copland Work Cheered. Also Jeered’. This is rather unfair. Under Wilson the piece, comprising Theme and Coda with twenty variations between, is, despite those dissonances, vital and colourful with jazzy and Latin touches and glimpses of the familiar Copland homespun.

The Short Symphony was written for Carlos Chávez and performed by the Orquesta Sinfónica de México in Mexico City. Again there were difficulties and ten rehearsals were necessary despite its relative brevity and reduced instrumentation: no lower brass, no percussion. The influences are Stravinsky and Schoenberg. As Cooke wryly observes, its rhythmic complexities had unimpressed both Stokowski and Koussevitzky, each of them shuddering at the prospect of performing it. Under John Wilson, it proves to be an exhilarating work with, again, the occasional nod at Copland’s lovable pastoral style.

The Symphonic Ode was premiered by Koussevitzky in February 1932 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The rehearsals had not gone at all well. The work’s rhythmic complexities had caused serious difficulties such that only a mere three bars had been perfected in one hour of rehearsal time. Things were so bad that the premiere had to be postponed by a year while Copland made revisions to allow easier performance. In 1955 he further revised the score and reduced its orchestration. It was then premiered by Charles Munch in February 1956 to celebrate the Boston orchestra’s seventy-fifth anniversary. Influences include Mahler and Stravinsky and musical elements of the composer’s Jewish heritage. Its blues-inflected basic idea comes from his 1926 Nocturne for violin and piano. The music presents us with a night vision that is hardly peaceful. It is partially jazzy, and proud and defiant in character.

Overall then this is spiky, hard-edged music for a dynamic American society, driven with vivacity and excitement yet I doubt if it will make many appearances in my CD player.

Ian Lace



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