Aaron Copland, like Cole Porter, reversed his musical course in the 1930s from his earlier, astringent, severe form of classical writing to a more accessible, tonal style. Porter, of course, completely gave up his classical style to become a top popular and Broadway songwriter, while Copland went on to score multiple successes writing classical music for “everyman.” But when you aim for Everyman, you get just that, a blanket homogeneity of style that sounds alike, or very similar, piece after piece after piece, and unfortunately, this is what Copland achieved.
His best (but not necessarily his most popular) music in this style was the opera The Tender Land, an oft-neglected masterpiece that puts anything John Adams or Jake Heggie wrote to shame; the Clarinet Concerto; El salon Mexico; some of his later chamber works; and two pieces on this disc, the 8 Poems of Emily Dickinson and the “Short Symphony.” Dance Panels, composed in 1959 and revised in 1962, begins with a marvelous introduction, including some foreboding but interesting harmonic clashes, but quickly settles down into the sort of Everyman Generic Classical Sound that was a hallmark of his style. Gerard Schwarz’s recording with the New York Chamber Symphony (EMI 49095) is clean but glib, though exciting in the fast movements. Copland’s own recording with the London Symphony (Sony SM2K 47236) is a little slower but considerably warmer, with more legato phrasing that makes the slow passages more attractive. Davies’ performance here is similar in approach to Copland’s, but recorded in a cleaner, less warm acoustic. It’s very, very fine, but none of the three performances convince me that the music is anything but functional.
The “Short Symphony” is given an outstanding reading by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (RCA 68541) that I found both thrilling and able to project the very best qualities of the music, contrasting its quirky motor rhythms (the opening of the first movement always puts me in mind of the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” theme song) with the more lyrical sections brilliantly. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (DG 427335) also does a fine job but, as is often the case with Orpheus, there is a certain clinical sound in slow passages that disturbs me. Davies takes it somewhere in between, but plays the entire symphony—short though it is—quite a bit slower than written. The opening movement, for instance, clearly indicated in the score as quarter note = 144, is taken by Davies at quarter note = 138. In a sense, this helps alleviate the slightly “cartoony” quality of the rhythms, but I found the last movement, taken at the same tempo (hey, at least he’s consistent!), less exciting and invigorating than Tilson Thomas.
The Dickinson songs are among Copland’s finest achievements, not a page, not a phrase, sounding mechanical or merely functional to my ears, but as I am really fussy about singers I didn’t know how Helene Schneiderman, whom I had never heard of before, would sound in them. As it turns out, she is simply wonderful. Her light, airy, sweet high mezzo voice, sounding very soprano-ish to my ears, interprets the words with wry humor and fine clarity of diction. She is not only finer than Dawn Upsaw (Teldec 28169), but I can pay her no higher compliment than to say that she equals or surpasses the 1982 recording by the legendary Marni Nixon (Reference Recordings 22) with Keith Clark and the Pacific Symphony, though this may be because Davies is a finer and more emotionally responsive conductor. In toto, then, a fine performance of Dance Panels, a first-rate version of the Dickinson songs, and a very good if not scintillating “Short Symphony.” If you don’t have the Nixon recording of the Dickinson, you’ll definitely want this disc. FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
1. Introduction: Moderato 4:45
2. Allegretto con tenerezza 5:06
3. Scherzando 3:16
4. Pas de trois: Lento 5:12
5. Con brio 3:32
6. Con moto 1:55
7. Molto ritmico 5:08
Eight Poems of Emily Dickenson (1949/1950)
8. Nature, the Gentlest Mother
9. There Came a Wind Like a Bugle
10. The World Feels Dusty
11. Heart, We Will Forget Him
12. Dear March, Come In!
13. Sleep Is Supposed to Be
14. Going to Heaven!
15. The Chariot
Helene Schneiderman (mezzo-soprano)
Symphony No 2 "Short Symphony" (1932-1933)
16. I. Tempo = 144 (incisivo) 4:41
17. II. Tempo = circa 44 5:25
18. III. Tempo = 144 (preciso e ritmico) 5:49
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Dennis Russell Davies (conductor)