Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Len Mullenger:

Fanfare for the Common Man (1943) 3.32
Appalachian Spring suite (1944) 25.09
Symphony No. 3 (1946) 43.33
Minnesota Orchestra/Eiji Oue
rec 25-26 March 2000, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis
  Amazon US


These three works of the 1940s sing of conflict, poetry and a thrilling new confidence.

The fanfare needs no introduction. It is one of the 20th century's icons as much as Barber's Adagio and just as affecting. The Appalachian Spring suite touches off so many melodic streams: purity, naively probing, dancing (Holst's Jupiter), rangy, bucolic. It is given by Oue as fine a performance as any although in a version for full orchestra rather than the original chamber ensemble. Strange how, for the first time, I noticed echoes of the naive Prokofiev in this work. I think particularly of Winter Bonfires. There are edit blips at 3.21 and 10.37; most unusual from Reference Recordings. but nothing to disturb the mood. Has anyone ever noted the similarity to the 'play' music from Bliss's Things to Come and the woodwind dance at 10.20? 

As part of the war effort Copland contributed a score for the film North Star. This propaganda effort sang the heroic virtues of a group of partisans in Russia fighting the Nazi invader. This was at a time (too easily forgotten) when US foreign policy endorsed the Soviet government as an ally. The music is accessible, uses full orchestra and choir. Its street corner and folk-heroics are now too easily sneered at. Its populist language, though treading the line between accessibility and banality, is instantly attractive. A complete recording is imperative (are you listening Varese-Sarabande or Chandos?) but if it must be a suite why not couple it with the contemporaneous and equally unknown scores Prokofiev wrote in 1942 for the Soviet partisan films.

The money earned from North Star made possible the writing of the Third Symphony; that and a commission by the Koussevitsky Foundation. The symphony is serious and a contrast with its predecessors, the first (1928) being an adaptation of a piece for organ and orchestra and the second, the so-called Short Symphony, being for chamber forces. This was a symphony with warlike ambition influenced by Piston, Diamond, Schuman and Roy Harris whose fifth symphony is dedicated to the Soviet People.

The first movement is questioning, feeling its way, but with glimpses of trudging epic confidence and fanfare-like presentiments. The second is a Prokofievan, triumphalist, lit by sickle-sharp fluttering banners. So fast is the full pelt that once or twice I wondered about the articulation of the Minnesota wind players. This movement strongly touches base with the Soviet style of Shostakovich 5 and 7, Festive Overture, Panufnik's Heroic Overture and Schuman 3.

The long and sensitive andantino shades without pause into a pp flute statement of the Fanfare for the Common Man. The orchestra takes up the fanfare in all its stalking majesty - surveying the far horizons of a new age with a brooding confidence borne of anguish and bereavement. Hymn-like and epic the closing pages are delivered with the affirmative swing and impact of a sledge-hammer.

I would not like to choose between this version and the competing accounts by Bernstein and Copland. Reference have a far superior recording quality and tends towards subtlety and refinement rather than the stridency of Bernstein.

If we now think, amid all this heroic warmth, of film music of a later era (John Williams in Saving Private Ryan and the various Star Trek movies) we catch some echo of what might have been if Hollywood had not turned its back on such a towering talent. Ultimately saturated by such language Copland turned sideways from it and retreated into a far more filtered, private and less accessible idiom. Ironically the later works would have earned him condemnation had they been written in the USSR.

Eiji Oue (a Bernstein protégé) and the Minnesotans adopt a reserved and subtle approach in all these works, avoiding the blatancy of other interpretations including Bernstein's. For the same reason you may find that this is a disc that yields rewards after repeated listenings. My first impressions were low key but the approach grew on me as I listened again. The recording is big and bold but to access these qualities you need a high volume setting. The soundpicture is one of a great concert hall with the listener sat about twenty rows back in the auditorium.

The music sings Copland, the people's man, the man whose communist convictions earned him Hollywood's rejection and one of whose early choral works celebrated the Revolution with a flag-waving piece of street rebellion: not at all an Establishment voice. Worth remembering in this centenary year. And when will it be more timely to record the complete score for The North Star.

A brilliant Hirschfeld cartoon adorns the booklet and the satisfyingly full notes are by Howard Pollack whose recent book is 'Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man' (New York, 1999).

One of the central recording events in the centenary year.

Rob Barnett

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