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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Connotations for Orchestra (1962) [18:42]]
Third Symphony (1944-46) [39:16]]
Letter from Home (1944 – rev. 1962) [5:40]
Down a Country Lane (1964) [2:17]]
BBC Philharmonic/John Wilson
rec. Media City, Salford, UK, 2018

This is the fourth release in Chandos’ new Copland project, and as before, the splendid BBC Philharmonic are conducted by John Wilson. As with the previous releases, it is on a Super Audio CD, playable on stereo systems and also on multi-channel systems. I have listened to it it using a SACD player in stereo, and an ordinary CD player in stereo. It sounds magnificent in both forms.

I must confess that I was drawn to this CD by the inclusion of the Third Symphony – the one that ends triumphantly with a reworked version the theme from ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’. The other works were new to me. The two shortest are in Copland’s more popular vein. ‘A Letter from Home’ was commissioned by the Blue Network with the principle that Paul Whiteman’s Jazz orchestra would have exclusive rights to its performance for a year. The piece is supposed to evoke the emotions that might be experienced on reading a letter from family. Whiteman didn’t think much of it, or other contemporary pieces, remarking that they would only be played at midnight when no-one would be listening. Jazz plays a minimal part in it; indeed, I would describe it as pleasant and predominantly conventional for its time, with none of Copland’s earlier forays into dodecaphonic techniques in play.

‘Down a Country Lane’ is very short and is a re-orchestration of a teaching piano piece. As such it was originally created for young pianists. The re-arrangement was again aimed at young performers and is too short and bland to make much of an impact.

The Third Symphony receives a fine performance, and at its premiere was described by Bernstein as ‘an American monument’. It would seem that Copland did not want to imbue the piece with any nationalistic aura – there was no ‘ideological basis’ for it, he said, and whilst he could invent one, he would be bluffing. The inclusion of ‘The Fanfare’ provoked accusations of populism from some of the more modernistically inclined critics, but the work’s optimistic spirit perfectly resonated with the post-war euphoria still evident in the USA in 1946. Koussevitsky declared it to be the “greatest of all American symphonies”. Structurally it consists of a moderato first movement, a scherzo, andantino and finale. The first movement consists of three themes, distributed amongst two musical paragraphs and a brief coda. Each of the themes are recognisably Copland-ish, sounding simple and economic in their scoring – a smooth melody for violins, clarinet and flute, another, sounding similar for oboes and clarinets and then the third, presented by trombones. They are worked together towards a great climax, followed by a brief calm and then the first two themes are combined towards another climax. Then we have the coda – built from variants of the first two themes – given here with quiet beauty.

The quiet is rudely interrupted by an immense thud on the bass drum, and we are into the scherzo. Here I notice a style that is reminiscent of Rodeo or Billy the Kid, although there is, perhaps, a degree more acerbity.

The next movement – Andantino quasi Allegretto – consists of a series of variations on a theme presented by a solo flute. The movement starts and ends with mysterious high violins. In between the flute and other instruments intertwine, at first quietly and gracefully, moving into a more dance-like section, transforming into vigorous outbursts.

The last movement follows on without a break. As already mentioned, it is based on The Fanfare, and I suspect that the symphony owes what popularity it has to this fact. Its instantly memorable theme will undoubtedly awaken an audience lulled into drowsiness by the previous movement, especially when the drums and tam-tam make their presence felt. This recording pulls no punches whatsoever, so the percussion section are having a field-day, and the listener knows about it!

I have left mention of the 19-minute ‘Connotations’ composed in 1962 – to the end. This is simply because I find it difficult to write about dodecaphonic music. It was Copland’s first orchestral score in which he presented his own version of twelve-note serial techniques. He said that he had tried to represent “the tensions, aspirations and drama inherent in modern living”. The piece is colourful and does not assault the ears to the degree that many other twelve-tone works do, but I found myself wishing for a tune that was not presented in such a distorted and acidulated manner. Having listened to it three times, I won’t be visiting it again – the sessions were a duty rather than a pleasure. It was something of a failure at the first performance; Jacqueline Kennedy could bring herself to say only “Oh, Mr.Copland” when they were together backstage after the performance. It seems that this amused the composer very much.

This entire CD is produced with all the care in recording and presentation that we have come to expect from Chandos, and it makes a fine fourth instalment to the Copland Series.

Jim Westhead


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