Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Here’s a change of pace for FANFARE FOR AARON COPLAND. Instead of the orchestral music Copland was most renowned for, we offer a survey of his compositions for solo piano, performed by the finest interpreter of this repertory.

Among the selections included is Copland's famous "Piano Fantasy," one of the most highly esteemed piano works of the 20th century on which the pianist, Leo Smit, does an excellent job on music not easy to play correctly.

This is daring music, usually challenging, but worth the investment in time that is necessary to fully appreciate these pieces. Scoredaddy

Most of this set was recorded for LP in 1978, but Leo Smit returned to the studios in 1993 to add some recently discovered short pieces. Smit, a friend of Copland and a composer himself, plays all of Copland's piano music with great comprehension. He sustains the flow throughout the difficult half-hour Piano Fantasy, though he doesn't create as much excitement in the Piano Variations as the composer did in 1935 on 78s (now on Pearl GEMM CD 9279). Much of Copland's piano music is occasional works or pieces for students, but the major works in the set make it well worth hearing. Leslie Gerber

Leo Smit (piano)

Disc 1
1 Scherzo Humoristique: The Cat and the Mouse (1920)
2 Piano Variations (1930)
3 In Evening Air (1966)
4 Passacaglia (1922)

Piano Sonata (1939-41)
5 I. Molto moderato
6 II. Vivace
7 III. Andante sostenuto

Two Piano Pieces (1982)
8 Midday Thoughts
9 Proclamation

Three Moods (1920-1921)
10 embittered
11 wistful
12 jazzy

Disc 2
1 Petite Portrait (1921)
2 Sentimental Melody (1926)
3 Piano Fantasy (1955-57)

Four Piano Blues (1926-48)
4 Freely Poetic (for Leo Smit)
5 Soft and Languid (for Andor Foldes)
6 Muted and Sensuous (for William Kapell)
7 With Bounce (for John Kirkpatrick)

8 Midsummer Nocturne (1947)
9 The Young Pioneers (1936)
10 Sunday Afternoon Music (1936)
11 Down A Country Lane (1962)
12 Night Thoughts (Homage to Ives) (1972)

Disc 1, #1,2,4,7 & disc 2, #3-12 were recorded at the Vanguard Studios, New York City in January, 1978

Disc 1, #3,8-12 & disc 2, #1-2 were recorded at Hit Factory, New York City on July 6, 1993

Friday, November 7, 2008


Aaron Copland made numerous recordings of his own music, including an extensive series for CBS during the 1960s and '70s, mostly with London orchestras. He was not an especially proficient conductor--consequently, the performances he conducted often lacked pace and rhythmic punch. His last recordings of his most popular scores have been reissued by Sony on an exceptionally well-remastered 3-CD set. These accounts do a good job of conveying the overall shape of the pieces, and they deliver telling characterizations of many episodes. Details emerge that are lost in some other accounts, and there is an appealing gentleness and sweetness to the approach. But the readings do not have as much grip as those of Bernstein and Slatkin, among others, and in spite of the authority they automatically possess, they are not necessarily preferable. Ted Libbey

If you want a prime collection of Copland's more accessible works, this is it. Yes, it's true that Bernstein's recordings of individual pieces are often bolder and livelier; but this set offers the composer's own authoritative view of his work, and for that reason alone it is priceless. In addition, it includes virtually all the orchestral pieces he composed during his "populist phase," from El Salon Mexico (1936) to the Clarinet Concerto (1948). You won't find some of these lesser-known gems, such as An Outdoor Overture (1938) or Letter from Home (1944, written--like Rhapsody in Blue--for Paul Whiteman), on typical single-disc Copland compilations. I'd even go so far as to claim this as one of the four indispensable compilations of American instrumental music from the first half of the twentieth century (the others on my list--in case anyone cares--are Joshua Rifkin playing Scott Joplin, Oscar Levant playing Gershwin, and the Blanton-Webster band recordings of Duke Ellington).

What amazing riches flowed from Copland's pen during the period covered by these three discs! Billy the Kid (1939), Quiet City (1940), Our Town (1940), Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), Rodeo (1942), Lincoln Portrait (1942), Appalachian Spring (1944), and the Third Symphony (1946)--all are here. Some of this music is so familiar, so deeply ingrained in America's cultural consciousness, that we might be tempted to take it for granted. But imagine how much poorer the American concert repertoire would be without it. It's almost impossible, at this point, to conceive of a time when this wonderful music--which is to America roughly what Mussorgsky's music is to Russia, Grieg's to Norway, and Falla's to Spain--didn't exist. It was during the dozen years covered by this collection that Copland pulled away from the pack of his talented contemporaries (Hanson, Thomson, Harris, etc.) and, in a way, but with greater technical sophistication, filled the void left by the tragically early death of Gershwin, whose heyday, 1924-1935, immediately preceded the composition of the works on this collection.

The ballet music is all presented here in the familiar orchestral suites Copland arranged. Most of the selections are played by the London Symphony Orchestra, although the New Philharmonia and the just-plain Philharmonia get cracks at a few key works. The last-named orchestra, for instance, takes on the biggest piece on the program, Copland's Third, the closest thing American music has to a Beethoven's Ninth (although the work's sublime rhetoric has never completely convinced me--it's neither my personal favorite by Copland nor my favorite American symphony . . . but it sure has its moments). In addition to the fine orchestral playing, another treat is that Henry Fonda narrates the Lincoln Portrait--an almost inevitable pick, given the virtually mythic way his acting style embodied the American spirit and the fact that he had portrayed the sixteenth president in John Ford's classic film Young Mr. Lincoln (1939).

The set concludes with what, over the years, has become my favorite work by Copland, the Concerto for Clarinet, Strings, Harp, & Piano, written for and performed here by surely the last century's greatest clarinetist, Benny Goodman. This work effects a concise synthesis between Copland's mature style and his earlier jazz stylings from the 1920s; in addition, the searing eloquence of the opening slow movement seems to me the most profound lyrical writing Copland ever achieved. Stoltzman's recording, ironically enough, swings harder than the king of swing's, but this collaboration between the composer and the man who commissioned it is for the ages.

The only major "populist" scores written after the period this collection covers are the film scores to The Red Pony (1948) and The Heiress (1949). Both can be acquired on an essential Leonard Slatkin CD for RCA. And since this collection doesn't include chamber music, the great Violin Sonata (1943), a kind of more intimate counterpart to Appalachian Spring, will have to be sought elsewhere. (One good option is Gil Shaham/Andre Previn on DG.) A serious Copland collector will also want to grab the other two volumes of the Copland Collection itself. The early set features important works such as the Organ Symphony (1924), Music for the Theater (1925), and the Short Symphony (1932)--but both of the other collections also include long, thorny pieces like the early Symphonic Ode and the late Connotations that can be rather difficult for the average enthusiast to enjoy.

Most of the essential, universal Copland is to be found on this second installment of the Copland Collection, and I would definitely recommend it as the place to start exploring Copland's magnificent contribution to American music. It has been a wonderful and treasured companion of mine for many years, and it also serves to conjure up a timely and inspiring vision of open prairies, nocturnal cityscapes, and the populist, humane values that America should, ideally, epitomize. ADB

CD I (Total timing-73:00)

1. EL SALON MEXICO (1933-1936) (11:25)
New Philharmonia Orchestra
(Produced by Paul Myers; Engineered by Mike Ross-Trevor & Robert Gooch; Recorded at the EMI Studios, Landon, May 31, 1972)

2. AN OUTDOOR OVERTURE (1938) (8:57)
London Symphony Orchestra
(Produced by Richard Killough & John McClure; Engineered by Hellmuth Kolbe & John Guerriere; Recorded at Walthamstow, London)

3. Introduction: The Open Prairie (3:22)
4. Street in a Frontier Town (6:37)
5. Prairie Night (Card Game at Night) (3:08)
6. Gun Battle (2:30)
7. Celebration (after Billy's Capture) (2: 13)
8. Billy's Death (1:28)
9. The Open Prairie Again (1:46)
London Symphony Orchestra
(Produced by Paul Myers; Engineered by Hellmuth Kolbe & Ed Michalski; Recorded at Walthamstow, London, November 28 & 29, 1969)

10. QUIET CITY (1940) (9:48)
William Lang, Trumpet• Michael Winfield, English Horn London Symphony Orchestra
(Produced by Richard Killough & John McClure; Engineered by Hellmuth Kolbe & John Guerriere; Recorded at Walthamstow, London, November 6, 1965)

11. JOHN HENRY (1940, revised 1952) (3:58)
London Symphony Orchestra
(Produced by Paul Myers' Engineered by Robert Gooch & Mike Rassirevor; Recorded at Walthamstow, London, October 26 & 29. 1968)

12. OUR TOWN (1940) (11:01)
London Symphony Orchestra
(Produced by Richard Killough & John McClure; Engineered by Hellmuth Kolbe & John Guerriere; Recorded at Walthamstow, London, October 2 & 3, 1967)

13. LAS AGACHADAS (The Shake-down Song) (1942) (3:03)
(Lyrics: Spanish Traditional)
New England Conservatory Chorus (Lorna Cooke de Varon, Director)
(Produced by Richard Killough; Recorded at 30th Street Studio, New York City, March 29, 1965)

14. FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN (1942) (3:15)
London Symphony Orchestra
(Produced by Paul Myers & Richard Killough; Engineered by Raymond Moore, Hellmuth Kolbe & Robert Gooch; Recorded at Walthomstow, London, October 26 & 29, 1968)

CD 2 (Total timing- 77:02)

RODEO (Four Dance Episodes) (1942)
1. I-Buckaroo Holiday (7:44)
2. II-Corral Nocturne (3:46)
3. III-Saturday Night Waltz (4:41)
4. IV-Hoedown (3:31)
London Symphony Orchestra
(Produced by Paul Myers; Engineered by Hellmuth Kolbe & Ed Michalski; Recorded at Walthomstow, london, October 26,1968)

5. New England Countryside (from The City/ (6: 10)
6. Barley Wagons (from Of Mice and Men) (2:34)
7. Sunday Traffic (from The City) (2:42)
8. Grovers Corners (from Our Town) (3: 10)
9. Threshing Machines (from Of Mice and Men) (3:04)
New Philharmonia Orchestra
(Produced by Paul Myers; Engineered by Robert Gooch & Mike Ross Trevor; Recorded at EMI Studios, London, June 6, 1974)

APPALACHIAN SPRING (Suite from the Ballet) (1945)
10. Very slow (2:46)
11. Fast (3:03)
12. Moderato (3:37)
13. Fast (3: 30)
14. Still Faster (4:05)
15.As at first (slowly) (1:07)
16. Calm and Flowing (3:12)(Shaker tune: Simple Gifts)
17. Moderato; Coda (3:22)
London Symphony Orchestra
(Produced by Paul Myers & Richard Killough; Engineered by Raymond Moore, Hellmuth Kolbe & Robert Gooch; Recorded at EMI Studios, london, November 9 & 10, 1970)

18. LETTER FROM HOME (1943-1944) (7:20)
London Symphony Orchestra
(Produced by Paul Myers; Engineered by Robert Gooch & Mike Ross Trevor; Recorded at Wolthomstow, london, October 26,1968)

19. DANZON CUBANO (Orchestral Version) (1944) (7:11)
London Symphony Orchestra
(Produced by Paul Myers; Engineered by Mike Ross Trevor & Robert Gooch; Recorded at EMI Studios, London, November 9 & 10, 1970)

CD 3 (Total timing-76:01)

1. Lento (4:17)
2. Subito allegro (3:29)
3. "Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history .... " (7:18)
Henry Fonda, Narrator
London Symphony Orchestra
(Produced by Paul Myers & Richard Killough; Engineered by Raymond Moore, Hellmuth Kolbe & Robert Gooch; Orchestral portion recorded at Wolthomstow, London, October 26 & 29, 1968; Narration was recorded in New York, June 7, 1971)

SYMPHONY NO.3 (1944-1946)
4. I-Molto moderato-with simple expression (10:20)
5. II-Allegro molto (8:46)
6. III-Andantino quasi allegretto (9:55)
7. IV-Molto deliberato (14:45)
Philharmonia Orchestra
(Produced by Roy Emerson; Engineered by Mike Sheody & Mike Ross Trevor; Recorded at EMI Studios, London, October 22 & 24, 1976)

Benny Goodman, Clarinet
Laura Newell, Harp
Abba Bogin, Piano
Columbia Symphony Strings
(Produced by John McClure; Recorded at Manhattan Center, New York City, February 20, 1963)


Saturday, November 1, 2008


Davies and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s have recorded a number of discs dedicated to Copland’s work. I like this one the best, especially their version of Quiet City, which comes off quite beautifully.

Dennis Russell Davies is a noted champion of living composers and modern music including Hans Werner Henze, William Bolcom, Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness, John Cage, Philip Glass, Giya Kancheli, Arvo Pärt, Virgil Thomson, and Aaron Copland. He has commissioned, premiered and recorded numerous pieces by living composers, along with the standard classical works. Of note are the recordings of Copland's Appalachian Spring with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1979 for which he won a Grammy Award; Arvo Pärt Fratres and Miserere; and many of Philip Glass's operas and symphonies including his 5th symphony which is dedicated to Davies. Lou Harrison's 3rd Symphony is also dedicated to Davies.

Upon the discs release in 1989, the New York Times called these performances “sharply articulated, lean-textured readings.” I would have to agree. They have a small, chamber feeling to them, very transparent and spare. To me, this is how Copland’s music sounds best, especially of these small-scale pieces. They are delicate and can easily be overwhelmed by overzealous forces.

William Blount acquits himself very well on the Clarinet Concerto, a piece commissioned and first performed by jazz bandleader Benny Goodman. Blount is a New York musician who has performed Copland’s concerto hundreds of times. His familiarity with the work is pleasingly obvious when listening to this recording.

Music For The Theatre (1925)
1. Prologue (6:09)
2. Dance (3:16)
3. Interlude (5:43)
4. Burlesque (3:15)
5. Epilogue (3:50)

6. Quiet City (1940) (10:02)

Music For Movies (1943)
7. New England Countryside (6:02)
8. Barley Wagons (2:24)
9. Sunday Traffic (2:28)
10 The Story Of Grover's Corners (3:05)
11. Threshing Machines (2:58)

12. Clarinet Concerto (1948) (16:36)

Dennis Russell Davies conducting Orchestra of St. Luke’s.
William Blount, clarinet on #12
Recorded in 1988