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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Symphony No. 3 (1944-1946)
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. live, 15-17 March 2018, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, USA Reviewed in 24/192 stereo download from SFS Media Programme notes here
A digital-only release: 16/44.1; 24/96; and 24/192 stereo/multichannel
SFS MEDIA SFS 0078 [42:33]

A former protégé of Leonard Bernstein, the 75-year-old conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is a tireless worker. If proof were needed, just look at his roster of recordings with the San Francisco Symphony, of which he has been music director since 1995. (With effect from the 2020/21 season, he will be succeeded by Esa-Pekka Salonen.) In 2001, MTT and the orchestra were among the first to launch their own label, SFS Media. Up until now, they have issued their audio product on hybrid SACDs, but this new Copland release is digital only. The download is available in lossless ‘CD quality’ (16/44.1) and high-res (24/96 and 24/192). Listeners will also be able to access the music via streaming services worldwide.

All very cutting edge, and a great way to celebrate the maestro’s quarter century in the top job. And, given his commitment to homegrown music, what better choice of work than Copland’s Third Symphony? Starting with his early Boston recordings for RCA, Tilson Thomas has remained loyal to this composer, as his SFS discography will attest. Moreover, these SFS Media recordings benefit enormously from the splendid acoustics of Davies Symphony Hall, completed in 1980. I first became aware of the venue’s sonic virtues via Herbert Blomstedt’s spectacular recordings of music by Hindemith, Orff and Nielsen (Decca).

In preparation for this review I listened to a number of Copland 3s, starting with the composer’s LSO version, recorded in 1958. Clean of limb and clear of eye, it’s a must-have album, especially in its latest remastering (Everest). Next up, Bernstein’s rhythmically alert – and surprisingly tender – NYPO recording, taped for CBS in 1966. (It’s far preferable to his DG remake.) Fast forward to 1989, and the Yoel Levi/Atlanta Symphony disc, with Telarc’s fabled bass drum thudding away in the famous Fanfare. Then on to Detroit in 1995, and Neeme Järvi’s taut, highly dramatic take on the piece; it’s well well worth investigating, not least because of the coupling, an unmissable account of Roy Harris’s Third (Chandos).

In 1947, Bernstein made unauthorised cuts to the Copland symphony, which, despite the composer’s misgivings, were eventually incorporated into the published score. That held sway until June 2015, when Boosey produced an edition that reinstated the missing music. Four months later, Leonard Slatkin and his Detroiters recorded a ‘heady, hyper-bold’ performance of this version (Naxos). John Wilson and the BBC Phil soon followed suit. Nick Barnard admired the latter’s response to the work, but when heard in such varied and vibrant company it sounds curiously tame, even a little dull (Chandos).

My final comparative features Carlos Miguel Prieto and the Orchestra of the Americas, recorded in 2018. Weightier and more propulsive than most, it’s certainly a very exciting version, even if it doesn’t feel particularly Coplandesque (Linn).

One should never underestimate the importance of the composer’s distinctive ‘sound’, which was always a highlight of MTT’s earlier Copland discs. That all-important quality is very much in evidence here, the symphony’s disarming simplicity superbly caught by orchestra and engineers alike. Tilson Thomas also taps into the native energy and glimpse of far horizons that Copland made his own. But what really struck me about Tilson Thomas’s first movement is his unhurried, insightful approach, those lovely, liquid woodwinds a joy to behold. Most intriguing, though, is the conductor’s lofty, almost aristocratic mien, which translates, as if by some mysterious osmotic process, into music-making of broad, sustaining nobility and strength.

As for the second movement, it’s beautifully paced and pointed, the notes given ample space to breathe. Not only that, the score’s fine detail and alluring colours really shine through in this sensitively balanced, wonderfully transparent recording.(The SFS piano is easily discerned – it’s a little too prominent in the remastered Everest release – but most rivals seem to bury it in the mix.) And this newcomer just gets better, the silken strings in the third movement simply ravishing. The mood here may not be quite as deeply felt as it is in Bernstein’s 1966 performance; still, it’s most affecting. Also, I like the way MTT modulates so naturally, so effortlessly, from seriousness to levity and back, those firm, underpinning pizzicati a special pleasure. Goodness, how much ear-pricking incident he finds here, no phrase glossed over, no nuances allowed to pass unnoticed.

In recent years I’ve commended the Boston and Chicago engineers for their technical prowess; I’m delighted to report that the SFS Media team - Greg Moore, Jason O’Connell, Gus Pollek and Jonathon Stevens - is just as accomplished. For instance, the ubiquitous fanfare, an invitation to sonic excess, is adroitly - and tastefully - handled, which makes it feel more like an integral part of the score than just an isolated showstopper. (The introduction to Strauss’s Zarathustra comes to mind.) Elsewhere, MTT brings a chamber-like lucidity to Copland’s more reflective writing that’s most welcome. Even more remarkable is his grasp of musical shape and, like Klaus Tennstedt in Mahler, his clear view of the work’s final destination. Indeed, the symphony’s coda, when it comes, is all the more powerful for being so meticulously signposted. Admittedly, Bernstein generates more excitement at the end - Prieto, superbly recorded, even more so - but taken in toto Tilson Thomas’s reading is the most rewarding one here.

As so often, comparatives demonstrate how amenable great music is to different interpretations. So, while I share Slatkin’s enthusiasm for the ‘complete’ Copland 3 – and I hope others record it soon – the other ‘standard’ versions mentioned here still have a great deal to offer. That said, MTT’s splendid recording now belongs at the very top of the tree.

A deceptively easeful yet quietly commanding performance that goes right to the heart of this great symphony; exemplary sound, too.

Dan Morgan

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