Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
An Outdoor Overture (1938) [8:35]
Symphony No. 1 (1926-8) [22:40]
Statements (1932-5) [19:25]
Dance Symphony (1932-5) [17:00]
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/John Wilson
rec. 2016, MediaCity UK, Salford
CHANDOS SACD CHSA5195 [68:17]
On the front of this disc we read ‘Orchestral works 3 – symphonies,’ while on the spine we read ‘Symphonies Vol. 2.’ Chandos are very attached to their numbering system, which often seems less than helpful to me, and this is a prime example. What it means is that this is the third volume of their Copland series with John Wilson, and, within that, the second volume of symphonies.
At this point I have to point out that Copland’s own numbering of symphonies was far from straightforward. There are actually five works he called symphonies. Here they are, with dates of composition, not premiere:
Organ symphony (Symphony for organ and orchestra) (1924)
Dance Symphony (1925) (Unnumbered, based on music for the ballet Grohg)
Symphony No.1 for orchestra (1928) (a reworking of the Organ symphony with the organ part removed)
Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2) (1931–33)
Symphony No 3 (1944–1946)
Wilson’s previous Copland symphony disc contained the Organ symphony and the Short symphony, together with two other related works (review review). Here we have the Symphony No. 1, i.e. the revision of the Organ symphony, and the Dance symphony, with, again two related works.
We begin with the Outdoor overture. This is the latest work here and it is written in what Copland called his vernacular style, the one he developed for his cowboy ballets such as Appalachian Spring. It was written for the New York High School of Music and Art, which combined a normal education with specialised musical tuition aimed at preparing students for professional careers in music. It is a cheerful, uncomplicated work with a breezy opening and a series of good tunes, in particular a march with an oompah bass.
The Symphony No. 1 in its original version was written as a vehicle for Nadia Boulanger, previously Copland’s teacher, to play in a tour of the USA. It soon became popular, but problems synchronising the organ with the orchestra led Copland to revise it, removing the organ part and replacing it with parts for wind, brass and piano. As you might have guessed, the version intended to be popular has turned out to be less popular than the demanding original. Indeed, on comparing the two, I find that the craggy original is a work of genius, the more mellifluous revision a work of talent, even though they use the same material and the difference is one of orchestration. Strange.
Statements is one of those modernist works consisting of a set of short and angular separate pieces. The Pieces for Orchestra of the Second Viennese School and Bartók set the trend. Like the Dance symphony which comes next, it drew from the unstaged ballet Grohg. There are six pieces: Militant, Cryptic, Dogmatic, Subjective, Jingo and Prophetic. Each sets a mood immediately, explores it briefly and then stops. I enjoyed most the Stravinskian Dogmatic, the string-based Subjective which sounded rather like Sibelius’ string writing, and Jingo, which features a popular tune developed in the manner of Prokofiev. But this is a modernist work and it does not forget to be aggressive and dissonant at times.
Grohg was a vampire magician who specialised in the raising of corpses. It is interesting that Copland was working on this rather macabre subject at around the same time that Prokofiev was working on his opera The Fiery Angel, on a rather similar theme, also then unperformed, and that both composers drew on their material for a symphony, Prokofiev’s third and this Dance symphony. Another comparison would be Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin. It is suitably sinister and not really very dance-like, nor very symphonic, but is a very good piece and, I think, the best work here. Incidentally Knussen recorded Grohg complete on Argo in 1994, but the Dance symphony probably contains the best parts, particularly the Introduction.
As on the previous disc, Wilson secures assured and confident performances of material which cannot have been familiar to the BBC Philharmonic. I was listening in ordinary stereo, which was very satisfactory, with a good stereo spread and rich brass and wind sound. There is a useful note in three languages, and those following the series can confidently acquire this. Its attractions are increased by the fact that this seems to be the only current recording of Statements, though downloads of older ones are available. There are other recordings of the other works here, but not in this combination. I trust Wilson will go on to record the Symphony No. 3, but what I am really waiting for is new versions of Connotations and Inscape, Copland’s last orchestral works, which we badly need.
Previous reviews: Ian Lace ~ Brian Wilson ~ Richard Hanlon