Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Orchestral Works - Volume 3
An Outdoor Overture (1938) [8.35]
Symphony No. 1 for large orchestra (1926-28) [22.40]
Statements (1932-35) [19.25]
Dance Symphony for large orchestra (1929) [17.00]
BBC Philharmonic/John Wilson
rec. 2016, MediaCity UK, Salford
CHANDOS CHSA5195 SACD [68.17]
Volume 3 in the Chandos/John Wilson Copland survey follows on from, and is
closely related to, the content of Volume 2 (review). Since I wrote my review, repeated hearings have blunted my initial shock at Copland’s uncompromisingly harsh compositions and I have grown to appreciate them more. The music of this new arrival still has that brittle, spiky hardness so redolent of the music of Volume 2, but to my ears is more readily accessible and even, in some quirky way, rather likeable.
To start with the Dance Symphony; the genesis of this music, for an unstaged ballet, called Grohg, dating from 1922-25, is the earliest Copland work on this album. The Dance Symphony (1929) was an arrangement by the composer of music from this ballet, which had first been named The Necromancer, based on a Dracula-inspired plot - the celebrated Murnau horror film featuring a vampire magician and the resurrection of corpses – including those of an opium addict and a prostitute. Nadia Boulanger encouraged Copland and Grohg resulted. Copland said that ‘the music was meant to be fantastic, rather than ghastly’ and that ‘the need for gruesome effects gave me the excuse for using modern rhythms and dissonances.’ After much work on the project, Copland abandoned it in 1925, convinced that what he had written had become passé. Then in 1929, as an entry in an RCA composition competition, he developed his Dance Symphony from the Grohg material. It won an equal $5,000 share of the overall $25,000 prize money; and it was first performed by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in April 1931.
Unsurprisingly, there is a consistently dark aura about the Grohg music. The Introduction is eerie and shadowy. The scene is the claustrophobic courtyard of Grohg’s lair. The atmosphere is of barely slumbering menace. Then we hear the First Dance – the Dance of the Adolescent. One is reminded of the music of the French Impressionists, together with jazzy figures and the jagged rhythms of Stravinsky. The young girl’s dance begins delightfully, a tad perfumed and exotic before turning sinuous and sensual. Dissonances intrude as a misshapen, distorted menace becomes apparent. Heavy bass drum pounding signals its attack and the adolescent falls prey. At her death, the music quietens to sympathy and pathos.
The second Dance of the Young Girl has innocence falling prey to the monster. The youngster’s dance steps seem faltering, testing, learning. Menacing figures begin to be heard on harp and woodwind as well as edgy high strings (there are some novel but very effective orchestrations at this point). The material grows ever more creepy and menacing, until the young girl becomes Grohg’s next victim with the same type of regretful concluding music.
The third Dance of Mockery is just that, Grohg’s hateful, sardonic, remorseless laughter over the fate of his victims. The music, sometimes jazzy, eventually segues into a distortion of a waltz - another take on Ravel’s La Valse one imagines? Towards the end Grohg is, perhaps, hounded by vengeance seekers – light triumphing over darkness.
Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic attack this music, which shocked 1930s New York, with exceeding vigour and verve. The Chandos sound is very revealing of all the grunts and groans and every grotesquery of this grand gothic horror. Great fun.
The programme begins with Copland’s Outdoor Overture written at the same time as his Billy the Kid. Copland was fond of this music and it was championed by Bernstein, in spite of a general opinion that it was ‘kids’ stuff’ (the original ‘play opera’ The Second Hurricane, had been a schools’ commission). Whatever, the music is endearingly jolly, breezy and extrovert with Copland’s familiar appealing, quiet homespun and nostalgic magic but enlivened, too, with proud marching material.
Copland’s three-movement Symphony No. 1 is essentially a reworking of his Organ Symphony, after the composer realised that a reworking of the work without organ but with additional parts for woodwind, brass and piano, would be more practical and would assure more performances. The composer may well have taken Nadia Boulanger’s advice and softened its impact a bit because this version does sound more audience-friendly.
The opening movement begins in quiet contemplation and reflection with a misty pastoral atmosphere. The French-music influence is prominent. Stravinsky’s influence pervades the perky scherzo. The music is thrusting, dominant and muscularly extrovert with jazz idioms present, too. The emotional weight of the work resides in the Finale. It begins slowly in melancholy before, at nearly two minutes in, fanfares usher harsher, bolder uncompromising material. A march, over forte aggressive-sounding timpani and bass drum, thunders along ruthlessly. Dissonances abound. Then a sort of serenity is reached with pastoral folk-material plus quiet trumpet and orchestral chatter. Wilson delivers an electrifying reading of an exciting and compelling reworking of what was something of a musical misfit.
Finally the concert includes Copland’s Statements. Copland referred to them as his ‘hard-bitten’ pieces. They are six in number and refer to six conditions: militant, cryptic, dogmatic, subjective, jingo[istic?], and prophetic. Each of these sections attracts music that is appropriately redolent. They are, like the rest of this programme, sharp-sighted dissonant miniatures. Jingo alludes to the melody of the once popular song, ‘The Sidewalks of New York’; and Dogmatic quotes the principal theme of Copland’s Piano Variations.
Sharp and dissonant or darkly exciting, depending on your taste; uncomfortable works but delivered with verve and panache by Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic.