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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Orchestral Works - Volume 3
An Outdoor Overture (1938) [8:35]
Symphony No 1 (1926-28) (Arrangement of Organ Symphony, 1924) [22:40]
Statements (1932-35) [19:25]
Dance Symphony (1929) [17:00]
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Wilson
rec 2016, MediaCity UK; Salford, UK
Reviewed in both Stereo and Multichannel formats
CHANDOS CHSA5195 SACD [68:17]

The first two instalments of John Wilson’s Copland series for Chandos set a very high bar for this repertoire– this third volume easily maintains the standard in terms of sweeping, cinematic performances and superior, detailed recording. Its focus is once again the music of the younger Copland, but by now he is beginning to learn important lessons from the early performances (or otherwise) of his music. Indeed the two symphonies included here are effectively re-workings of other Copland originals. Inevitably after his studies with Nadia Boulanger there is still a discernible and transparent Frenchness to some of the orchestration here, albeit with stronger hints of the later, grittier composer.

Americana is not completely absent, however as the programme begins with An Outdoor Overture, the latest work here; it was commissioned in 1938 for the high-quality orchestra of the High School of Music and Art in New York. It is the sole example of a concert overture in Copland’s output. The fanfares at its outset may suggest a kinship with a later, more renowned fanfare from this source; here they morph into an extended and beautifully played trumpet solo. An Outdoor Overture effectively contrasts lyrical, open-air type material with marching tunes derived from these fanfares. I detect a close kinship with the contemporary Canadian Carnival Overture of Copland’s friend Britten – it is indeed rather surprising that neither work is heard more often. In performance terms this account epitomises everything one might expect from a John Wilson led-band. This conductor seems to lavish particular care on the wind and brass, anything to better present the compositional skill behind a particular work and something that he’s certainly brought to the table from his renowned re-creations and traversals of material from the great Hollywood musicals.

The Symphony No 1 in its original guise with solo organ featured in Volume 2 of this series. Ian Lace’s MWI review of this disc includes an interesting potted history. Indeed the ferocity of this work prompted the famous remark from Walter Damrosch (who conducted its premiere) that “….if a young man can write a symphony like that at age twenty-three, within five years he will be ready to commit murder," The purely orchestral version was a pragmatic response to the fact that many large halls did not actually possess an organ and would thus restrict performance opportunities. Comparing the two versions is instructive – the inescapable conclusion is that the removal of the solo instrument results in something of a softening of the sound (I am in complete accord with Ian Lace here) which some listeners may find more ingratiating (if less exciting). Secondly the purely orchestral colours I think clarify the influence of Stravinsky which was obviously de rigeur for any young composer studying with Nadia Boulanger in the Paris of the early 1920s. The two opening movements are mellow compared to the finale, which has moments of loud and heavy dissonance. The orchestral playing is tremendous and Wilson’s grasp of an unwieldy structure total. The recording is powerful in stereo but the Super Audio layer better illuminates more of the subtle colouristic details of the first movement.

Statements is even less familiar. Wilson’s performance here presents a more user-friendly experience than Copland’s own more literal (and more roughly recorded) account on a CBS ‘Meet the Composer’ black disc (Now included in one of Sony’s ‘Copland Collection’ boxes). ‘Militant’ is assertive and dissonant – the notes refer to Virgil Thomson’s apposite early description of the whole work as “a manly bouquet….”, but this is neither Ives nor Ruggles; in Wilson’s hands the manliness is more romanticised perhaps. The ‘Cryptic’ movement opens with broken fanfares that hint at the populist appeal of this composer’s more familiar works, but this soon gives way to more ambiguous questioning material. The brief Dogmatic panel alternates the rhythms of Copland’s better known Americana with dissonant, stabbing chords and provides a marked contrast to the inward intensity of the succeeding Subjective movement that follows; Wilson at times projects a tender melancholy here. The Jingo statement is the most immediately accessible of the set, based as it is on the tune ‘The Sidewalks of New York’- this features an unexpected throwaway ending. The final Prophetic follows a luminous prelude with really aggressive, jagged chords. These are succeeded by another lyrical episode on solo trumpet which is briefly interrupted by threatening gestures on the bass drum. (this is especially vivid on the Multichannel layer.) The work concludes with a mysterious, quiet stroke on the gong which epitomises the ominous nature of this strange finale. On the face of it the work is built on such disparate elements it is a wonder that Statements coheres as a whole as convincingly as it does; much of the credit for that must go to the conductor.

The Dance Symphony which concludes the disc was again based on earlier material, in this case the early ballet Grohg (which wasn’t actually performed until 1992 – it was recorded soon afterwards by Oliver Knussen and the Cleveland Orchestra). Its gothic-horror origins are revealed in the eerie brass of the brooding opening. A sprite-like bassoon melody takes up the argument gently accompanied by limpid harp and percussion. Gradually the work eases into a form that could be more obviously linked to the dance. There is some beautiful solo woodwind work here – flute and saxophone in particular excel. The movement becomes swifter, more intense and frenzied before it abruptly returns to the sombre mood of the opening and directly leads into the waltz-driven slow movement. This also features a memorably sinuous saxophone solo. The rapid finale is probably the most obviously balletic here, but the orchestration is unambiguously pure Copland. The Dance Symphony I think more than any other work in this collection provides the opportunity for the superb BBC Philharmonic to showcase its collective and soloistic qualities. Furthermore, Wilson infuses this work with more than a degree of Hollywood glitz. As for the recording, it’s really spectacular in both formats. Collectors of this series will not hesitate; if some begin with this issue I cannot believe they will not want its two predecessors.

Richard Hanlon

Previous reviews: Ian Lace ~ Brian Wilson

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