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Download available from
Qobuz

Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Orchestral Masterpieces

Appalachian Spring - suite [25:45]
El Salón México
[10:50]
Piano Concerto [15:41]
Fanfare for the Common Man [2:47]
Lincoln Portrait [15:15]
Quiet City [9:38]
An Outdoor Overture [9:17]
Our Town – orchestral suite [9:09]
Variations for Orchestra [13:43]

Earl Wild (piano)
Charlton Heston (Lincoln)
Symphony of the Air/Aaron Copland (concerto)
Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Fritz Litschauer (Appalachian, Mexico)
Hartford Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Mahler (Fanfare, Variations)
Utah Symphony Orchestra/Maurice Abravanel (Lincoln, City, Overture, Town)
rec. c.1961. ADD or AAD.
Reviewed as streamed in 16-bit lossless sound.  Download only: no booklet.
VANGUARD CLASSICS [112:05]

This is a generally attractive collection of major and minor Copland – not everything really qualifies for the hopeful description ‘masterpieces’.

This Vanguard recording of the Piano Concerto, which Rob Barnett reviewed some time ago, remains available on CD from Presto, ArkivMusic and Amazon UK, still coupled as reviewed with the Menotti Piano Concerto, but now with the catalogue number OVC4029. You should be able to find the CD for a little over £5, but the download, even in mp3, may cost you more than that.

Downloaders are better served by the alternative 2-hour selection of Copland’s music listed above, released by Musical Concepts, and available for £7.19 from Qobuz, where I streamed it in 16-bit sound.

The more adventurous may wish to find many of these recordings as part of a Big Americana Box from Bach Guild. It’s a very mixed bunch of recordings, but some gems, including some RPO/Farbermann Ives, as well as some turkeys, 7½ hours for as little as £9.49 from uk7digital.com.

The opening Appalachian Spring Suite is a little rough and ready, and the Vanguard recording emphasises that by being a bit too up-front and bright. I had the volume turned up a little for another recording, and hastened to drop it a notch or two. Bearing in mind the price of the download, it’s no great expense to choose another Appalachian Spring. You may already have one; otherwise, I recommend a recording of the complete ballet, not just the suite.

It’s disappointing that John Wilson, on his recent Chandos album, chose to record only the suite; I recommend the full ballet from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco SO (RCA 82876658402, with Billy the Kid and Rodeo, download only). That’s no longer a bargain, as the CD was when it was reviewed by Peter J Lawson, and the download comes without a pdf booklet, but it’s still well worth having.

El Salón México benefits more from the up-front performance and recording, but it’s with the Piano Concerto that we come to the first really worthwhile tracks on the album. It’s notable for Earl Wild’s brilliant solo contribution, but the orchestral support, under the composer’s guidance, and the very clear recording are also definite pluses. Rob Barnett – link above – put it rather mildly when he wrote that ‘Wild does not hold back’.

Whether you choose the CD with the Menotti coupling or this download, this recording is well worth having as an alternative to the Copland (piano) and Bernstein recording with the NYPO (G010003984842U, download only, available for around £5.50 in lossless sound, with Schuman Concerto, etc. – review of box set). Just don’t expect music as easy to listen to as Appalachian Spring and the other popular Copland repertoire. Not an easy listen, but well worth the effort.

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra may not be well-known, but they give us a vigorous Fanfare for the Common Man. The Lincoln Portrait is the first of the works recorded by the Utah Symphony Orchestra and Maurice Abravanel. I’ve always thought their Mahler recordings unjustly overlooked, and their atmospheric recordings of American music are also well worth having, especially as Vanguard always gave them some of the best sound of the day. Whatever you may think of the words in the second half, here spoken almost casually by Charlton Heston, they are words that some politicians today would do well to heed. Oddly enough, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was hardly reported at the time – one newspaper reported that ‘the president also spoke’.

At any rate, the music is stirring, and this is greatly preferable to a thankfully now defunct 1992 recording by Margaret Thatcher with the LSO and Wyn Morris, offered free to anyone who wanted it by a record shop that I used to frequent. No-one took it. An equally implausible recording by General Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf, with Leonard Slatkin, remains available (RCA G010003882012P, download only).

I confess to having found Quiet City less than compulsive listening at times, even in Copland’s own recording, but Abravanel makes a very good case for it, and what the Utah Orchestra lack in sheer beauty, they make up for in their clear love of the music. As Rob Barnett notes in his review of the Vanguard CD (no longer available) featuring the four Abravanel contributions here, it’s the ‘angelic Utah trumpet’ that wins the day in the Portrait and Quiet City, and again in the Outdoor Overture.

The Our Town suite, like Quiet City, can sound dull, but Abravanel and the orchestra do their best to keep our attention. The closing Variations for Orchestra, like the Piano Concerto, feature Copland in a different mode – appropriately, both feature on an RCA recording entitled Copland the Modernist (G010000267910Z, download only). It’s one of the few Copland works that I didn’t know, but the Hartford Symphony and Fritz Mahler make a good case for it.

The Vanguard CD came with a coupling of music by Morton Gould of which Rob Barnett was not greatly enamoured, so the all-Copland download is preferable, not just for the very attractive price. Most of the performances are idiomatic; none is beyond the pale, and the weakest, the Appalachian Spring, is easily supplemented. The Vanguard recording is bright and truthful throughout – a little too truthful for that opening work. There’s no booklet, which, though far from ideal, is less of a problem when the recording is on offer so inexpensively.

Brian Wilson



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