Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Quiet City (1939/40) [10:21]
Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson (1949/50, arr.1958-70) [23:10]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op.24 (1947) [17:51]
Capricorn Concerto, Op.21 (1944) [15:05]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Summertime, from Porgy and Bess (1935) [3:45]
April Fredrick (soprano)
Orchestra of the Swan/David Curtis
rec. 29 May 2011, Stratford-upon-Avon Civic Hall. DDD
texts of the songs are available in the booklet
SOMM SOMMCD 0118 [70:20]
This is a live recording from a concert centred
on the music of Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, two XX Century Americans
who shared more in their lives and style than is apparent at first glance.
The program opens with Copland’s Quiet City, soft slow music with bright accents. A careful balance is struck between the energizing trumpet, which soars above the gleaming strings, and the English horn, which emphasizes the pastoral and the serene. The episodes change the mood to slightly more disturbed, slightly more solemn, or slightly more lyrical, but always slightly, and the overall disposition stays relaxed and meditative. The present performance is actually quite active and not too “Afternoon-of-the-Fawnish”: the landscape it paints is quiet, but still a city. The two soloists play with clarity and expressivity; they are acoustically separated from the strings. The trumpet is smooth and firm.
Knoxville, Summer of 1915 is Barber’s little masterpiece, a child’s vision, personal and sincere. This is a lyric rhapsody with a perfect union of words and music. The fragment by James Agee raises a memory from the author’s childhood, of a tranquil summer evening in the American South. The scenes and thoughts follow as if in a dream, the narration progresses from smallest things to cosmic heights, and the music is full of love, nostalgia, and delicate sadness. The rocking lullaby-style refrain - it depicts veranda rocking chairs, maybe? - frames episodes of greater agitation or serenity. The soprano soloist is April Fredrick; she has a beautiful voice, shining and round, celestial on the high notes and rich on the low ones. It does not lean to either the dry or the watery sides, and has certain mezzo qualities. This creamy timbre and velvety strength reminded me of Dame Janet Baker. The orchestral support is sensitive, the tempi are well chosen, and the solo instruments are beautifully phrased.
Barber’s Capricorn Concerto is a modern concerto grosso. Like Bach’s Second Brandenburg, it is scored for flute, oboe, trumpet and strings. The music is tonal yet advanced, and is close to Stravinsky - as in his Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. The main content of the first movement is a vigorous, rhythmic run. It is interrupted by a dark and “meowing” episode, and then stops once more for a short plea-like monologue, before the running resumes. This sprinting is a little comical, but its humor is satirical, not happy. The middle movement is a jumpy Scherzo with a slight Chinese zest - like the Ping-Pang-Pong music from Puccini’s Turandot. The attitude is not comic anymore, but hostile, almost scornful. The rhythmical progress is broken again by a contrasting short and introspective Trio of pastoral character. The finale is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella: 20th century music clad in 18th century sonorities. The music is lively and cheerful, a busy neo-Classical Allegro dominated by the bright trumpet. Again we have a moment of quiet reflection before the vivacious ending. The performance of the concerto is light and stylish. The three soloists maintain a good balance. This is one of works that one can enjoy, but I can hardly believe it can be candidly loved: it is more cerebral than emotional, entertaining but not for frequent listening.
Copland, unlike Barber, was not a songwriter and was not as comfortable with the human voice. His 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson are the only songs that he wrote in his mature period. Something in these texts by one of America’s greatest poets apparently touched him, for he worked hard on them for almost a year. Dickinson’s texts are eccentric and untamed, even wild at times, very unconventional especially for the years of their creation – and so is Copland’s music, as if trying to visualize for the listener all these bursts of punctuation, torn phrases and zigzagging thought. Much later the composer orchestrated eight of the songs. The orchestration is sparse and chamber-style, with bird-like winds and perky brass. Copland’s setting is rough and angled, so a more dry and “modern” voice could suit it as well, but April Fredrick makes it less Copland and more Dickinson, more poetic, mystic and feminine. Her singing is so humane and vulnerable, that these modern songs become really accessible, as if continuing the expressionistic tradition. At times I was reminded of Elgar’s Sea Songs, an unexpected parallel.
Ending an all-Copland-slash-Barber program with Gershwin’s evergreen Summertime might seem strange, but since the program was recorded in a live concert, this is a dessert-like encore. Fredrick’s voice is as full as ever, but starts to show strain, probably due to the two demanding works that preceded it, and overall I feel an excess of pressure. There are magical moments, but the overall result is not so lullabyish.
The entire program is like a journey from Beauty to the Beast and back: very suitable for a concert, as it provides enough diversity. Though it was recorded live, the disc has real studio quality, and the audience is completely inaudible. It illuminates unexpected parallels between two such dissimilar composers as Barber and Copland; I understand that the sets of their admirers do not fully intersect, but even if you do not belong to both, this disc is well worth hearing for April Fredrick’s beautiful voice.