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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Orchestral Works 4
Connotations for Orchestra (1962) [18:42]
Third Symphony (original version) (1944-46) [39:16]
Letter from Home (1944 rev. 1962 for Chamber Orchestra) [5:40]
Down a Country Lane (1962 arr. for School Orchestra 1964) [2:47]
BBC Philharmonic/John Wilson
rec. 2018, MediaCity Salford, UK
5.0-channel surround sound

With this fourth volume, John Wilson completes his survey of Aaron Copland's major orchestral scores and includes one of the composer's knottiest works Connotations. Mervyn Cooke, in his articulate and informative liner note, makes the valid point that Copland was criticised on one hand for producing a modernist/elitist score such as Connotations, yet was criticised on the other for chasing popular appeal with his Symphony No.3. Certainly the former remains one of the least recorded of his major works while the symphony - aside from the popular ballet scores - is his most-recorded large-scale piece.

This is the first of this series that I have heard, but the three preceding volumes have been well received. This combination of conductor, orchestra and label are pretty much a guarantee of excellence and indeed this is very good. Comparative versions of Connotations are few and far between. Dedicatee Leonard Bernstein recorded it with his New York Philharmonic in 1962 for CBS/Sony and, although a little thin-toned, the recording still sounds rather good, certainly capturing the craggy uncompromising nature of the score. I do not know the DG remake these same artists made in 1989 nor the Juillard Orchestra's version, also from the late 80s. A quick glance through the catalogue suggests that may be the sum total of the commercial versions. Copland wrote the work for the opening of the (then) Philharmonic Hall at the Lincoln Center and one wonders if the collected great and good were expecting something more overtly celebratory and accessible. Instead, this is Copland in questioning Modernist mode. His stated aim was to write a work which would "reflect the tensions, aspirations and drama inherent in contemporary living". To achieve this he used - for one of the few times in his compositional career - a modified serial technique where all 12 semitones of the octave scale are combined into chord clusters and melodic lines. By 1962 this was hardly a revolutionary technique but certainly one not associated with this composer.

Bernstein in 1962 made this sound a challenging, almost uncomfortable work - who said music should always be comforting? My observation about Wilson and the BBC PO in this new version is that they smooth out the edges of the score. In part, this is because fifty years down the line, players are a lot more familiar and at ease with this type of musical vocabulary as well as having the technical resources to make the music sound easier. Also, the very fine and sophisticated Chandos 5.0 surround sound does reduce the bite and venom that Bernstein finds. Comparative timings are quite close - barely 19 seconds difference over a 19 minute span – so this is by no means a question of speed, but I do feel that this new version lacks the tensions referenced in Copland's description. That said, this is a brilliantly dispatched performance played with all the easy skill we associate with this orchestra. I suspect my preference for Bernstein is simply a case of having 'learnt' the music through that performance so Wilson's more objective, emotionally lean approach makes for a valuable alternative.

Choice as far as the Symphony No.3 is concerned is quite another thing. However, if you want to discover the 'original' version of the score with the dozen bars from the finale reinstated, the only options you currently have are this new version or Leonard Slatkin's recent recording on Naxos with the Detroit Symphony. I know some people have got quite excited about these new/old bars going back in but it should be remembered that Copland was quite happy to record the score himself more than once with the cuts in place. For me their presence is icing on a performance cake and not a pre-requisite. Copland's two recordings are a good point for comparison with this new disc. The earlier LSO/Everest recording is now some 60 years old and sounds absurdly good for its age. More to the point, here Copland as conductor favours tempi that are noticeably quicker than his Philharmonia remake for CBS/Sony about eighteen years later. The outer movements were considerably more spacious in 1976. John Wilson is generally closer to Copland '58 but this is a work where both versions are effective. The broad/epic style pays dividends during the closing, lump-in-the-throat reiteration of the Fanfare for the Common Man whereas the faster speed benefits the drama of the second movement Allegro molto. Often described as one of the great American Symphonies, this work has received many fine recordings over the years and I must admit I have enjoyed a lot of them, including some which have been dismissed as superficial and insensitive. Included in that category is the earlier Chandos recording from Neeme Jarvi during his Detroit SO tenure. No real surprise that Jarvi opts for tempi more often than not at the faster end of the 'standard' range but worth noting, too, the pre-surround recording style favoured by Chandos back in the mid 90's. This is a quite up-front, detailed but rich recording which has a directness that matches Jarvi's no-nonsense approach.

Wilson seems to want to emphasise the orchestral-showpiece side of the work. To achieve this he sets some challenging tempi for the BBC PO – listen to the driving speeds he sets for the fugato passages in the finale after the initial statement of the "Common Man" material. I have to say the orchestra – and the strings in particular – play this with wonderful panache but to me, although it does not sound in any way rushed, the feel is simply too fast. Wilson – even with the extra bars – brings this movement home in just under thirteen minutes, while Copland '76 takes 14:45 with the cut in place. To be fair Copland '58 is much the same as Wilson and the Philharmonia in '76 do not match the collective virtuosity of the current BBC PO even at a much steadier tempo. Slatkin in Detroit for Naxos is good too, although his coupling is neither as interesting or as generous as this new Chandos disc. The more I hear the reinstated ending, I do wonder if Bernstein was not right in suggesting the cut – even in a performance as well sustained as here there is a real sense of one extended peroration too far. I am always pleased to hear first thoughts and generally prefer uncut versions, but I am not sure that the reinstated bars add much to our sum knowledge of the work or the composer. Before leaving this work, a mention for the Reference Recording version from Eije Oue in Minnesota. Again, some find this slack but I rather enjoy the grandeur and sweep that Oue achieves – again very different from the urgent athleticism of Wilson but none the less valid.

After these two substantial scores, the disc is completed with a pair of brief but enjoyable slighter works. Both are Copland in more homespun mode. First there is the 1944, revised 1962, Letter from Home. Originally scored for a Dance band – including 5 saxophones - this was a commission from Paul Whiteman that Copland completed while at work on the Third Symphony. Apparently early performances suffered from being rushed and the implication is that Whiteman had little empathy for the score or the genre. Perhaps this explains why Copland's 1968 recording was an antidote, taking a leisurely 7:20 in comparison to Wilson's not exactly speedy 5:40. Slatkin in St. Louis for RCA splits the difference at 6:44. All three versions project the score as a gently tender and reflective work that is a little gem. It inhabits the slightly mythical mid-Western sound-world that seems to encapsulate for many people the 'sound' of America away from the bustle and roar of the city. Certainly, the new recording evokes the nostalgic sense of home-sickness one imagines the composer sought. This is a little treasure of a work and a perfect foil to the rigour and occasional bombast of the two main scores. Briefer still is the closing Down a Country Lane where, once again, Wilson favours a significantly more flowing feel than either Copland himself with the LSO in 1968 or indeed Hugh Wolff with the St. Pauls Chamber Orchestra. The Copland recording shows its age in direct comparison but I do prefer the broader approach of both Wolff or Copland – apparently the title is not meant to imply a programme as such but the music does evoke the sense of gentle well-being that a country stroll can produce. Wilson is very good of course, with beautifully elegant and poised playing but with a fraction less 'wonder' than Copland manages to find.

Overall, a brilliantly played, well-programmed and well conducted sequence of pieces. Engineering is very much in Chandos' currently preferred house style, well presented and accompanied by a good liner. I listened to the SA-CD stereo layer. Collectors of the earlier volumes will no doubt be delighted with this latest disc. These are performances to be considered alongside current favourites rather than supplanting them.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Jim Westhead



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