11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
It would be comfortable to think of Copland as the early modernist turned populist (he would have been neither the first nor the last), but the picture isn't so simple. When, in view of the lack of success of his early compositions, he turned to a more populist style, heralded in 1936 by El Salon Mexico, Copland never abandoned his "modernist" manner, and the two subsequently coexisted.
Copland "the populist" and composer of "cowboy music" is evidently more popular than Copland the "modernist", but I've long been an admirer of tha latter. I consider the Piano Sonata, Piano Fantasy and Piano Variations to belong to the great masterpieces of 20th Century piano literature.
In fact, calling the composer of those and other "serious" compositions a "modernist" is a bit exaggerated. That Copland was considered such in the 1930s says a lot about the state of cultural backwardness of audiences and critics then. Heard today, Copland's "serious" compositions (or "severe" as he himself characterized them) are rarely difficult music. They are serious, yes, but also alternately grandiose and granitic, intensely lyrical, and sweepingly dynamic. Yes, there are dissonances and crashing chords - always at the service of a great dramatic impact. Elements of the musical language that Copland uses in his more popular pieces can easily be recognized even in earlier ones. The difference between the modernist and the populist isn't a case of schizophrenia.
In that respect, it takes really a wide stretch of the imagination tho attribute the Piano Concerto to the "modernist" - or even to the "serious" Copland. It is a short piece (17 minutes here), in two movements, and the second is Copland out-jazzing Gershwin. It may have been viewed as modernist back when it was premiered in 1927 - granted, it is more unruly, rambunctious and angular than anything Gershwin ever wrote, more like "Bartok meets West-Side Story" (I hear striking echoes of Bartok's 2nd Piano Concerto) - but heard today it is as "populist" as it will get. The first movement, alternating grandiose and sweepingly epic fanfares and more pastoral moments (sunset on the prairie after a hard day's work), announces Copland's later style.
The Orchestral Variations are the orchestration, made in 1957 on a commission by the Louisville Orchestra, of the early Piano Variations from 1930. The music is maybe not "modernist" (not compared to Schoenberg or Varèse, not to mention whoever was modern in 1957 - how about Elliott Carter, who, also on a Louisville commission, had written his Variations for Orchestra two years before?) but certainly "severe", and it is a great orchestral piece, entirely convincing and self-sufficient in its orchestral guise. All is clearly announced in the powerful, stark and forbidding statement of its theme - a musical evocation perhaps of the awe and terror inspired to the mortal soul when the Gates of Heaven open for Judgment. It is followed by twenty (short) variations and a coda (not individually cued), each running so smoothly into the next that the seams can hardly be heard. It is imposing and "eloquent" - a character indication that often comes under Copland's pen.
Incredible how much the "Short Symphony" from 1933 sounds like Stravinsky - but the Stravinsky of The Rakes Progress (1951) or even Agon (1957). It is sprightly, spirited, almost abstract in its staccato jauntiness, while its second movement develops to great lyrical intensity in a way that also evokes Honegger. After its world premiere in Mexico City in 1934 under Carlos Chavez, it didn't get a US premiere until 1944, as Stokowski and Koussevitzky, while admiring it, considered it too complex rythmically for their respective orchestra (no less than Philadelphia and Boston) to master it in the alloted rehearsal time. It is is a marvelous composition.
And so is the Symphonic Ode. Its first version, writtten for a Mahler-sized orchestra, was completed in 1929 and it got its first performance in 1932 under Koussevitzky, but Copland withdrew it and re-orchestrated it for smaller forces in 1955. It exudes tremendous rhythmic energy, and like the Short Sypmphony it is filled with a spirit of dance, while its slow, middle section (it has five, playing without break) develops to great lyrical intensity and stark eloquence. It is the most dissonant of the compositions featured here.
MTT and SFSO deliver good to outstanding interpretations, that come against the strong competition represented by the composer's own recordings - in the Piano Concerto both as conductor, in 1961 with Earl Wild (Copland, Menotti: Piano Concertos, Copland: Piano Concerto And Orchestra/Menotti: Concerto In F For Piano And Orchestra), and pianist, in 1964 with Bernstein (The Copland Collection: Early Orchestral Works, 1922-1935). Ohlsson is more subtle of touch than Copland, but Copland's biting accents and cruder sonics, as well as Wild's greater muscularity and bigger tone, are more appropriate in the Jazzy 2nd movement. But overall all three conductors and orchestras have the required verve, dynamism and rambuctiousness (see my reviews of the two other recordings for more details).
In the Orchestral Variations comparisons with the composer himself (The Copland Collection: Orchestral Works, 1948-1971), Bernstein live in 1958 (New York Philharmonic - An American Celebration vol. 2) and Robert Whitney in the 1958 premiere recording with the Louisville Orchestra (Variations) - the two latter in mono - show that the piece can be conducted with marginally more tautness (Copland), urgency and violence (Bernstein), rawness and uncompromissing starkness and bite than MTT. Still MTT's is a fine reading, imposing in the theme and first variations, suitably urgent in the final ones (14 to 20), and the Sanfranciscans play with peerless ensemble.
In the Symphony and the Ode, when there is an interpretive difference with Copland (more in the Ode than the Symphony), it is MTT's favor: in the Symphony, he is slightly more driven, muscular and snappy in the finale. Likewise in the Ode TT is swifter and more urgent than Copland's more solemn approach. There are spots where Copland's LSO in 1965 and 67 seems to struggle with the notes, the Sanfranciscan have them in their stride.
But where Copland's recordings have a surprising edge is in the area of sonics: they have much more presence, vividness and instrumental color than MTT's digital recording (I was bothered more in the PC and Variations), making them, still today, a first choice, and TT a welcome complement.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
I must confess I've never given much chance to classical music, despite being a huge music fanatic. After seeing a special on PBS about Copland, I was intrigued at how some of his later era stuff seemed to have a jazz influence in it. I ran across this album early into my search for some of his more adventurous stuff, and I'd say I hit the nail right on the head. Nothing on here is predictable and dull in any way--it's very exciting and interesting stuff that has totally changed my view of classical/orchestra music. I've heard some of his other stuff, and I think everything I've heard is very good, but this one takes the gold as being not only the best I've heard from Copland, but some of the very best music I've ever heard.