Monday, January 26, 2009


Aaron Copland is best remembered for creating a truly American style of music which is full of folk influences, and melodic and harmonic simplicity. The Old American Songs incorporate folk melodies ranging from minstrel songs (The Boatmen's Dance) to hymns (Simple Gifts) to political satire (The Dodger). Originating as songs for voice and piano, these arrangements by Irving Fine for chorus were authorized by the composer, who himself further expanded the songs for voice and orchestra. 'The House on the Hill' and 'An Immortality' were both arranged by the recently departed Daniel Pinkham, who was a student of Copland's at Harvard.

For a composer whose reputation is so closely connected with the idea of Americanness, Aaron Copland's output of choral music, the central genre of American community music-making, is remarkably sparse. To make an album's worth it's basically necessary to employ the solution chosen here by the Camerata Singers and director Timothy Mount: to perform the two sets of Old American Songs, as arranged for chorus by Irving Fine.

These are delightfully done by Long Island's youthful Camerata Singers, with the words clearly articulated (a good thing, since no texts are given), all the jokes intact (sample I Bought Me a Cat if you're in the mood for a laugh), and a restrained attitude that puts across the cleanness of Copland's lines. That cleanness was a legacy of Copland's French neo-classic training, on view in the Four Motets composed in 1921, during his years as a student of the Paris pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. It is striking how much of Copland's personality comes through in these little works, even as they reflect various French models; they're little crowd-pleasers that deserve to be better known than they are. Indeed, it is the smaller works that provide the real attractions for the potential buyer of this album. Try track 16, Las Agachadas (The Shakedown), a fascinatingly compact slice of Copland's Mexican idiom (it is in Spanish, with an English translation provided).

Two choral songs from 1925, on texts by Ezra Pound and Edwin Arlington Robinson, are also worthy and neglected early Copland works. The sound has a high-school-gymnasium quality, but it doesn't detract from the listener's enjoyment — it's appropriate, somehow, and the texts aren't obscured. The only major negative is the booklet, which needed editorial oversight; among the numerous problems is the appearance of Robinson's name as Edwin Arlington in the track list. James Manheim

Old American Songs, for voice & piano, Book 1 Set 1 (1950)
1. The Boatmen's Dance 03:01
2. The Dodger 02:16
3. Long Time Ago 02:59
4. Simple Gifts 01:31
5. I Bought Me a Cat 02:21

Four Motets (4), for chorus (1921)
6. Help Us O Lord 02:49
7. Thou O Jehovah Abideth Forever 02:14
8. Have Mercy On Us 03:38
9. Sing Ye Praises To Our King 02:10

Old American Songs, for voice & piano, Book 2 Set 2 (1952)
10. The Little Horses 03:12
11. Zion's Walls 02:22
12. The Golden Willow Tree 03:57
13. At the River 02:54
14. Ching-a-Ring Chaw 01:56

15. Choruses (2) An Immorality (1925) 04:36
16. Las Agachadas (The Shake-down Song), for soprano, alto, tenor, bass & chorus (1942) 03:32
17. The House on the Hill (1925) 05:10
18. Lark, for baritone & chorus (1938) 04:44

Camerata Singers, Timothy Mount, conductor
Recorded March & October, 2006 at the State University of New York, Stoney Brook Recital Hall, Stoney Brook, NY


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