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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Symphony No. 3 (1946) [45:09]
Three Latin American Sketches (1971) [10:09]
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. 2013/15, Orchestra Hall, Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, Detroit. DDD
NAXOS 8.559844 [55:18]

I’ve enjoyed the previous instalments in Leonard Slatkin’s Copland series for Naxos. I reviewed his account of Appalachian Spring and, though I didn’t review it, I then acquired his earlier disc which included Rodeo and El Salón México. Inspired by Dan Morgan’s review of that release as a BD-A disc I bought it in that format and found the sonic results were as impressive as the performances.

There are a number of works of literature which are praised as the Great American Novel. There are rather fewer contenders for the accolade of Great American Symphony. Many people would advance the claim of Roy Harris’s Third Symphony in that connection and I wouldn’t dissent. However, another strong candidate must surely be Copland’s Third. Begun in 1944 at a time when the Second World War was still in progress but an Allied victory seemed to be on the horizon, the score seems to me to reflect the mixed emotions of the time: a sense of confidence, yes, but also a degree of uncertainty as to what the future might hold. It’s also a score that’s shot through with a sense of the sheer spaciousness of the North American landscape.

I like this Slatkin performance a lot. At the very start he conveys an air of reflection and cautious optimism. You also sense the Great Outdoors. Copland marks the music With simple expression and that injunction is followed here at least until the music gradually becomes bigger and more rhetorical. I think Slatkin puts across the craggy grandeur but he also does very well the episodes which are characterised by a sense of uneasy calm. The movement is very well shaped so that when Copland concludes it by harking back to the material and mood of the opening you feel conductor and composer have achieved a moment of QED.

The Allegro molto contains vigorous, strongly rhythmical music that recalls Copland’s three great ballets. Slatkin and the DSO impress in the outer sections of this movement with exciting and very positive playing. The central section (3:53-5:58) begins with some characterful woodwind work, led by the oboe, after which the strings offer fine playing as the music proceeds. There’s considerable sensitivity in the performance of the Andantino quasi allegretto. At times, this is searching music; Slatkin and his team are not found wanting in these passages. The transition to the finale is very well negotiated. When the woodwind intone the Fanfare for the Common Man I don’t believe that Copland repeated his first movement instruction With simple expression but had he done so it would fit the way the Detroit winds play at this point. The brass and percussion delivery of the Fanfare is dramatic and it’s also very well conveyed by the engineers – super tam-tam crashes. The main allegro is full of vitality; the playing of the DSO is keen-edged. From 11:59 onwards the final peroration is very imposing.

Hereabouts we have an element of novelty. In the booklet Leonard Slatkin explains that in consultation with Leonard Bernstein Copland made some alterations, including cuts, to the original score and these changes were incorporated into the published version. It is only recently that the original score has been made available and Slatkin has recorded that version. He comments that “Most striking among these changes is the elongated [finale] coda, which adds a broader and richer palette of sonority to the already boisterous proceedings.” Since I don’t have access to a score I can’t be sure where these changes come into play – and still less identify changes elsewhere in the symphony – but I think the principal reinstated passage may occur between 13:41 and 14:04. If I’m right, then I don’t think Copland’s decision to make the cut was a damaging one. Arguably, the concluding peroration is long enough in its familiar, published form. Probably as a result of reopening the cuts Slatkin’s account of the finale, which takes 14:54, is exactly a minute longer than Bernstein takes in his live 1985 DG recording which I think can now be obtained only as a download (review). Carlos Kalmar, in his excellent Oregon Symphony recording (review) is a little less overtly rhetorical than either Bernstein or Slatkin in the symphony’s final pages. His recording is very well worth hearing, both for its excellent performance and its superb sonics (review). However, this Slatkin performance of the symphony is a very good one indeed and the coupling – and more modest price – may well give it an advantage over Kalmar.

For his coupling Slatkin has chosen a Copland score that is, perhaps, not heard as often as it might be. The Three Latin American Sketches are dated 1971 but as Charles Greenwell points out in his useful notes, two of the constituent pieces date from 1959. These are the second and third Sketches: Paisaje Mexicano and Danza la Jalisco which were composed at the invitation of Gian Carlo Menotti for his Spoleto Festival. The third Sketch, Estribillo, was added at the request of Andre Kostelanetz some years later and he unveiled the now tri-partite work in 1972 with the New York Philharmonic.

The Sketches are, as their name implies, not substantial pieces but they’re colourful and highly enjoyable. Estribillo is based on a Venezuelan popular song. With its sharply enunciated rhythms it makes a bright and breezy opener. Paisaje Mexicano (Mexican Landscape) is slow and relaxed: perhaps we’re viewing the scene at siesta time? Danza la Jalisco, named after one of Mexico’s states, is vivacious and here benefits from crisp, animated playing. Slatkin’s rendition of this movement is a much livelier affair than Copland’s own 1972 recording with the New Philharmonia (CBS/Sony). By the side of Slatkin the composer’s steadier performance seems rather staid.

This is a most enjoyable and very successful Copland disc. The performances are excellent; Slatkin is a fine advocate for Copland’s music and the DSO plays really well for him. The engineering was a collaborative effort between Soundmirror and the DSO’s own team. The results are excellent and may I put in a request that Naxos consider this album for release in BD-A format. The CD sound is impressive enough but I’d be very interested to hear the symphony in particular in the enhanced format.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ Leslie Wright



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