thoughtful, emotionally fleet and powerfully recorded
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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990) Symphony No. 3 (original version) (1946) [45:09]
Three Latin American Sketches (1971) [10:09]
No. 1 Estribillo [3:17]
No. 2 Paisaje Mexicano [3:23]
No. 3 Danza de Jalisco [3:28]
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. 23-25 October, 2015 (Symphony), 10-12 October 2013 (Sketches),
Orchestra Hall, Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, Detroit, USA
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559844
Leonard Slatkin is a busy man, what with a Ravel cycle in Lyon – five
volumes so far – and a Copland one in Detroit, of which this is the third
instalment. In general, I prefer the latter; yes, I was qualified in my
– Rodeo, Dance Panels, El Salón México and Danzón Cubano – but
Volume 2, with catalogue-topping performances of Hear Ye! Hear Ye! and Appalachian Spring, is beyond criticism; indeed, it was on my
shortlist of the year’s best recordings in 2016.
Under Slatkin, the DSO’s music director since 2008, the orchestra have
recaptured something of their illustrious past, when they were led by the
likes of Paul Paray, Antal Doráti and Neeme Järvi. By happy coincidence,
the latter recorded Copland’s Third Symphony with them in 1995. That’s just
one of my comparatives, which include: the composer and the LSO (Everest);
Leonard Bernstein and the NYPO (CBS-Sony, not the DG remake); Yoel Levi and
the Atlanta Symphony (Telarc); Slatkin and the St Louis SO (RCA); and, my
wild card, Carlos Kalmar and his Oregon orchestra (Pentatone). As for the Latin American Sketches, I’ve chosen Copland’s own recording, made
with the New Philharmonia in 1972 (CBS-Sony).
Slatkin’s Detroit performance of the Third Symphony is certainly a strong
one, the first movement taut and tense in equal measure. The links to
balletic Copland are unmistakable, and the recording – produced and
engineered by Soundmirror’s Blanton Alspaugh – has plenty of punch.
Slatkin’s rhythms are razor-sharp and spring-heeled, and he paces and
phrases in a way that speaks of long familiarity with – and affection for –
this iconic score. And it just gets better, the arc and spark of the second
movement especially impressive. As for the DSO – woodwinds, strings, brass
and the all-important percussion – they acquit themselves very well indeed.
Most important, the sheer chutzpah of this performance is audible in
every bar. The third movement, in which we hear the Fanfare for the Common Man, has a sustained loveliness at the start
that’s most affecting; and when the jaunty, loose-limbed Copland strides
forth, he does so with supreme confidence. But it’s the inwardness here –
with its echoes of Appalachian Spring – that makes the deepest
impression. As for the fanfare, originally a stand-alone piece composed in
1942, it’s a sonic treat; this is where Alspaugh’s splendid recording
really makes a difference. The indomitable spirit of the finale, recapping
the fanfare, is exhilarating, the playing intense and unstoppable. And in
case you were wondering, the bass drum and cymbals are seriously
seat-pinning at the close.
That ending brings us neatly to the USP of this recording: it restores the
unauthorised cuts that Bernstein made in 1947. Copland was persuaded to
accept these amendments, which then appeared in the published score. That all
changed in June 2015, when Boosey published the original score. The now
‘elongated coda’, as Slatkin describes it in his conductor’s note, is most
welcome. Admittedly, the changes are fairly minor, but they really do
affect the shape and character of the finale. I daresay Copland fans will
be delighted to hear the symphony as the composer intended it, and that the
‘Bernstein version’ will now fall into abeyance.
Alternative endings weren’t an option in 1990, when Slatkin and the St
Louis Symphony recorded the piece. That apart, how does it compare in terms
of performance and sound? First off, the earlier account majors in nobility
and refinement, which some may prefer to the raw energy of the newer one.
The St Louis players just aren’t as inspired as their rivals in Detroit.
Indeed, their performance now seems too soft-edged, an impression that’s
reinforced by a distant, rather diffuse recording. In short, Slatkin had
the letter of the score then; now he’s found its spirit.
There’s nothing reticent about the Levi/Atlanta performance or recording,
as the symphony’s bold opening so amply demonstrates. I’d say his broader,
somewhat measured approach puts this version somewhere between the two
Slatkins. Most damning, perhaps, is the fact that Levi seldom generates the
kind of charge that so galvanises Slatkin and his Detroiters. Even Telarc’s
recording must yield to the Naxos one in terms of sonic reach and slam,
especially where the bass drum and percussion are concerned. That, coupled
with a frankly average reading, rules this one out for me.
Average is not a word one associates with Bernstein, and his yearning,
vibrant account of this symphony, recorded with the NYPO in 1966, is proof
of that. His trademark volatility is evident from the very start, and one
senses a deep kinship with both the score and its avowed sentiments. True,
he underlines and tweaks the music to suit his dramatic purpose – he even
makes parts of the second movement sound unnervingly like Shostakovich – but there’s
an implacable ‘rightness’ to his reading that’s as compelling now as it was
then. Also, the sound is extremely vivid and there’s no sign of coarseness
anywhere. Throw in a feisty performance of the Symphony for Organ, with the
venerable E. Power Biggs, and you have a true classic.
Talking about classics, Everest’s audiophile recordings from the late 1950s
and early 1960s certainly qualify. Copland’s LSO account of the Third
Symphony, recorded for them in 1958, has gone through a number of
incarnations, not all of which appear to have preserved the fidelity of the
original. According to
Ian Lace, the latest version is a good one, and he warmly welcomed the return of
this landmark performance. Even though I listened to an earlier transfer, I
would have to agree. Simple expression is the key phrase here, and the LSO
sound as supple and idiomatic as any of their rivals on record.
I only came to this recording very recently, and I’m simply astounded by
both the performance and the sound. I like Copland’s plainness – the
antithesis of Lenny’s heart-on-sleeve approach – and there’s a quiet
consistency here that’s simply unique. True, there’s some highlighting here
and there, but the upside is that colours and textures are laid bare in a
way that subsequent recordings can only dream about. Also, there’s plenty
of depth and space to the audio image, and that’s a substantial bonus. But
it’s the sheer breadth and sincerity of this reading that makes it so
special. Very different from the Bernstein, but just as indispensable.
And what about Järvi, recorded 37 years later? His is a robust, very
persuasive performance and the DSO are in good shape. There’s power here,
but it’s properly harnessed, which confirms that both the conductor and his
recording team have got their priorities right. I’d half expected Järvi’s
performance and recording to pale next to Slatkin’s latest, but hearing it
in this context has convinced me otherwise. The second is electric movement
– Shostakovich again – and the fanfare in the third is mighty indeed.
Factor in a most desirable coupling, Roy Harris’s Symphony No. 3, and Järvi
joins Copland and Bernstein at the head of the field.
Before I discuss Slatkin’s pairing – the Three Latin American Sketches – a few words about my wild card, the
Kalmar/Oregon Third. Part of a themed programme, Spirit of the American Range, this release has received generally
on these pages. But how does it stack up in the present company? As a
performance it’s really rather good, and as a recording it’s well up to the
standards of the house. Kalmar is closer to Bernstein in terms of thrust
and attack, but he doesn’t build tension quite so convincingly. Not
surprisingly, given the recording’s provenance, the showpiece moments – the
fanfare in particular – are spectacular.
There’s much to admire in Kalmar’s performance – what tremendous energy
there is in the second movement, the bass drum as powerfully punctuating as
any – but when heard alongside Bernstein, Slatkin and Järvi it doesn’t leap
off the page in quite the same way. That said, it’s one of the better
Copland Thirds, and the couplings – George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony
and Walter Piston’s Incredible Flutist suite – make for a most
rewarding programme. I plan to review the
download in more detail soon, probably in one of Brian Wilson’s regular
Copland’s love of Latin rhythms is epitomised by works such as El
Salón México and the Danzón Cubano. These three Sketches, composed in 1971, are no exception. Indeed, they contain
clear echoes of those early pieces. Slatkin and the DSO may not be as fired
up here as they are in the symphony, recorded two years later. but then
these are sparer, more intimate pieces. Still, the playing is good and the
restrained mood of the central Paisaje Mexicano is well caught.
Things warm up a little in the Danza de Jalisco, but even then I was
mildly disappointed by the performance as a whole.
Copland and the New Philharmonia, sounding very colourful in the outer
sections, are to be preferred here, although the differences really aren’t
that great. Not the composer at his most flamboyant, perhaps, but worth
hearing nonetheless. The companion pieces – Our Town, TheRed Pony suite, El
Salón México and the Danzón Cubano
– are all excellent, though; and while the 1970s sound is a tad bright at
times, it’s not at all fatiguing.
The joys – and sorrows – of a comparative review are what makes them so
much fun to write. In the process of these (re)-evaluations, two early
hopefuls – Levi and Slatkin Mark 1 – must now be considered also-rans.
However, the odds on Järvi have improved significantly, and the joint
winners – Bernstein and Copland – have now been confirmed. At the outset, I
was sure Slatkin Mark 2 would be among the frontrunners, and so it proves.
Indeed, while some conductors grow dull with age, Slatkin just gets
sharper; and that’s why more Copland from this source is such a pleasing
A heady, hyper-bold account of Copland’s original score, superbly recorded;
go for it.
Postscript: at the time of writing – May 2017 – Bernstein’s DG recording of
Copland’s Third Symphony only seems to be available as part of multi-volume
sets, such as the one reviewed by
in 2004. In the UK at least, the single CD can be found online, but
only at absurdly inflated prices. Resourceful downloaders might be luckier,
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