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Pan-American Reflections
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Symphony No. 3 (1944-1946) [40:57]
Carlos CHÁVEZ (1899-1978)
Symphony No. 2 ‘Sinfonía India’ (1935-1936) [11:29]
The Orchestra of the Americas/Carlos Miguel Prieto
rec. live, 14-15 July 2018, The Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music, Lusławice, Poland
LINN CKD604 [52:37]

The Orchestra of the Americas, founded in 2002, is an ensemble that draws its membership from across 25 countries in the western hemisphere. All the musicians are under the age of 30. The Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto has been the Principal Conductor since the orchestra’s inception and is now, since 2011, its Musical Director. Each summer, during July and August, the orchestra undertakes a concert tour and residency, choosing a different country in the world every year. I presume the present recordings, made in Poland, were part of the 2018 summer venture.

In a valuable booklet essay Juan Arturo Brennan draws attention to the professional and personal relationship between Aaron Copland and Carlos Chávez. Even though the two works that we hear on this CD are very different in style from each other – and make for a short running time – Mr Brennan implicitly makes a good case for the music of these two composers appearing on the same programme. And, of course, having Mexican music and a work from the USA coupled together underlines the Pan-American nature of the orchestra. A further link is provided by the coincidence that the American, Copland, began work on the symphony during one of his visits to Mexico, while the Mexican, Chávez wrote his Sinfonía India during a trip to the USA, where his work was first performed.

I like Copland’s Third very much, even if it might be objected that its rhetoric is very much of its time. Rob Barnett put this well in a review of Leonard Bernstein’s 1985 DG recording when he reflected that the work is “perhaps rather oppressive and hectoring but a memento of the times when democracy was under threat and reflecting a grip on idealism amongst the squalor and tragedy of a world at war.” That very recording has long been my benchmark for the work; Rob rightly described the reading as “weighty” and the recorded sound as “imposing”. Well worth the attention of collectors also is Leonard Slatkin’s fairly recent recording, which restores some cuts that Copland made after the work had been premiered (review). Bernstein, though, possesses special authority in this work and the Linn booklet goes so far as to remind us that the composer himself said that “[Lenny’s] way of conducting the Third symphony is the closest to what I had in mind when I wrote it.”

Carlos Miguel Prieto’s approach to the symphony is often a little less expansive than Bernstein’s – and it’s worth noting too that in terms of timings the composer’s own 1976 recording with the Philharmonia (CBS Sony) tends to be closer to Bernstein than to Prieto. Yet, I must hasten to say that even in passages where Prieto is less broad in his approach than the magnetic Bernstein, I never felt that the Mexican was short changing the music – or the listener.

Much of the first movement – not least the very opening – seems to me to illustrate in musical terms the great majestic vistas of the North American landscape. Anyone fortunate enough to have seen the Rocky Mountains, for instance, will surely find these pages evocative. Prieto unfolds this music spaciously, though with no sense of dragging his feet; his approach is purposeful, powerful and, at times, dramatic. Bernstein gives a terrific account of this movement, yet I found Prieto completely persuasive. I was struck by the excellence of both the orchestral playing and the recorded sound. Prieto’s account of the second movement is dynamic and strong. His orchestra offers precision playing, not least the deft woodwinds.

Prieto begins the slow movement in measured fashion; the exposed string lines are most atmospheric. A good deal of expressive string and woodwind playing follows. Prieto handles these opening pages impressively, though I have to say that Bernstein is even more searching. Prieto judges the transition to the central, livelier section well (around 4:36) and in this quicker episode I liked the many puckish woodwind contributions. Towards the end, the music slows and Copland returns to the quiet, introspective mood in which he opened the movement. This leads seamlessly into the finale, which follows without a break as the flutes and clarinets gently intone the Fanfare for the Common Man; here, they sound almost to be playing from a distance. Bernstein handles the transition from third to fourth movement with a greater degree of tension and once the Fanfare is taken up by brass and percussion his performance is terrifically imposing. But Prieto is not far behind when it comes to being imposing and though the DG engineers give Bernstein very good sound the new Linn recording marks a significant advance; the sound is simply terrific, with the percussion coming across with thrilling realism. At 2:30 the music quietens and becomes more relaxed as Copland transitions to a lively, happy dance. This section is played with exuberance and freshness by Prieto’s orchestra. At 9:02 a series of jagged, dissonant chords occasions an abrupt end to the festivities but Prieto’s spirited woodwind section gradually lead us away from that stark moment to the re-emergence of the Fanfare. The last three minutes or so of the symphony are increasingly grand. Lenny rather pushes the envelope here – though with such character as to silence nay-sayers; Prieto is slightly less grandiose but still gets full rhetorical value from the music. Audience applause has been edited out but I bet this big, generous music and these skilled performers were given a great ovation by their Polish audience.

Sinfonía India is a short, compact work but Chávez packs a lot into a short duration. It’s colourfully orchestrated, requiring a vast percussion section which includes a large number of indigenous Mexican instruments – I presume those are used here rather than the ‘conventional’ alternatives which the composer sanctioned. The present performance benefits from crisp playing in the opening episode – without such crispness a performance would flounder. I found the playing exciting and vivid. As well as colourful scoring, the piece is distinguished by great rhythmic variety and vitality. No one could fault the rhythmic acuity of this performance. The music becomes rather more relaxed and, indeed, lyrical at 2:18 but even here there’s a strong rhythmic impulse. At 6:35 Chávez accelerates into an abandoned dance in which there’s lots of rhythmic irregularity to spice things up even more. A short pastoral episode, led by the woodwinds (8:03) offers a chance to catch one’s breath before the dancing resumes. From 9:28, as Juan Arturo Brennan points out in his notes, the music bears a strong resemblance to the concluding ‘Malambo’ section of Ginastera’s ballet, Estancia. The Orchestra of the Americas delivers this last part of Sinfonía India with infectious zest and superb precision. It’s a terrific end to an exciting performance.

These are splendid performances. The quality of the orchestra is top-notch and Carlos Miguel Prieto conducts both works with great conviction and skill. The performances have been captured in thrilling, realistic sound by producer/engineer Philip Hobbs. Linn’s documentation is very good. One can’t entirely overlook the short playing time but I’m happy to live with that given the artistic distinction of this release.

John Quinn

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