March 21, 2019
(++++) SYMPHONIES AND SUCH
Copland: Orchestral Works, Volume 4—Third Symphony; Connotations; Letter from Home; Down a Country Lane. BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Wilson. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Sergio Cervetti: Et in Arcadio ego; Consolamentum; Plexus. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. Navona. $14.99.
Mark John McEncroe: Symphonic Poem—The Passing; Symphonic Suite No. 1—A Modern Medieval Tale. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armore and Heiko Mathias Förster. Navona. $14.99.
The fourth and final volume in John Wilson’s survey of Copland’s orchestral music – and the third including symphonies – brings this notable sequence of Chandos SACDs to a satisfying conclusion in part because it shows how Copland’s musical can be handled effectively as international in orientation, not specifically American. Copland tends to be thought of as a quintessentially American composer, and his Third Symphony (1944-46), with its finale incorporating a version of Fanfare for the Common Man, is often deemed as the most American of his works in this form. It has even sometimes been called “The Great American Symphony,” although that appellation seems overstated and perhaps indicative of lack of familiarity with Charles Ives – and, for that matter, William Schuman and Alan Hovhaness. In any case, Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic show this to be a work of considerable heft and interesting instrumentation, with the first-rate recorded sound an important element of the production: from delicate passages to the intensity of the bass drum, this is a recording for audiophiles. It is also one for seekers of completeness: Leonard Bernstein suggested a dozen-bar cut in the finale to Copland, the composer accepted the idea, and both Bernstein and Copland himself recorded the symphony with the excision; but Wilson goes back to the original version, which is rarely heard. This is a small point but a telling one: it shows Wilson treating this piece as any sophisticated international symphonic work would be handled, with respect for the composer’s original intentions even if revisions are more frequently heard (the extreme example of this being Bruckner). Another example of this “internationalization” is Wilson’s handling of Copland’s Third as something of an orchestral showpiece, for example by pushing the fugato passages in the finale (after the fanfare) to a speed that seems rather uncomfortable (despite the excellent playing of the orchestra). Yet the overall feeling of Wilson’s conducting is rather on the lyrical side, despite the generally quick tempos. The strings are especially clean-sounding and effective in the slow movement, and Wilson generally seems to be seeking a balance between intensity and lyricism throughout the symphony. That creates a bit of a neither-here-nor-there feeling in the performance, but it would be hard to argue that this is anything less than a thoughtfully conceived and very well executed version. Wilson and the orchestra handle the almost-symphony Connotations quite well, too. Copland originally thought of calling this piece a symphony – he certainly used that designation for some very different works – but it is in fact an occasional work (written for the opening of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City in 1962) and is more of a tone poem than anything genuinely symphonic. It is also a knotty, infrequently recorded piece, one of the few in which Copland dipped into the Second Viennese School: in a modified serial approach, all 12 semitones of the octave are heard in chord clusters and melodic lines, lending the work the “contemporary” feeling that Copland avowedly sought even though his approach was scarcely a new one by the 1960s. Here as in the symphony, Wilson shows the internationalism of Copland by treating the work as a rather smooth, carefully conceived piece despite its serialism: Wilson does not feel obliged to make Copland’s technique an in-your-face one, and the result is an interesting reading in which the music sounds “Coplandish” despite its overtly modernist elements. There is a refinement to Wilson’s view of Connotations that almost makes the work seem more a part of the European mainstream in the 20th century than a part of a specifically American kind of music. Wilson concludes the disc and the series with two attractive, melodic miniatures that serve as pleasant encores. Letter from Home (1944/1962) is gentle, tender, nostalgic, and reflective, a kind of ode to what we would now call Middle America. Down a Country Lane (1964) is also homespun and rather sweet: it is certainly not deep, but it is pleasantly redolent of the feeling of warmth and connection with nature that a country walk can provide. It was arranged by Copland for school orchestra from one of his piano works, so it is not difficult music to play, but in the hands of Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic, it makes a very satisfactory and very satisfying conclusion to a very fine four-disc series.
Copland never wholeheartedly embraced serialism and other modern compositional techniques, but they are foundational for many other composers. Sergio Cervetti’s symphonic poem, Et in Arcadia ego (2017), is contemporary in sound from its first shrill notes through its massed gouts of sound in which two deeply dissonant pitches – B and B-flat – are almost constantly played against each other. The work is supposed to be about an island off Uruguay that is a nature preserve, but if that notion is taken at face value, the island, Martín García, must scarcely be one where humans can commune with the natural world in the manner of Copland’s Down a Country Lane. The deliberately cacophonic material in Cervetti’s piece appears to be intended to make listeners feel uncomfortable, although the purpose of doing that is never quite clear. Cervetti is a skilled orchestrator and an unashamed adopter of various modern musical techniques, and Et in Arcadia ego has numerous interesting elements when considered simply as music and not as having any particular meaning. Even on that basis, though, its 20-plus minutes seem longer, since its not-quite-tonality leads to a feeling of uncertain or absent progress as the music continues. Consolamentum (2016), also a symphonic poem, is one-third shorter and considerably more successful in presenting a heartfelt tribute to several medieval Christian sects that were persecuted and virtually destroyed by the Catholic Church during the Inquisition. The pacing of the music and the extent to which it progresses quietly but inexorably are effective. Here too Cervetti juxtaposes two elements – in this case, chords rather than notes – and uses them as touchstones for the entire work. More a tribute to martyrs than a musical tale of their beliefs and martyrdom, Consolamentum requires no particular religious faith or spiritual orientation of an audience: it simply reaches out and asks listeners to experience empathy. In this way it is almost the opposite of Plexus (1970, revised 2016), which, like Copland’s Connotations, is an occasional work – written for the Fifth Inter-American Music Festival in Washington, D.C., in 1971. The original version must have sounded interesting: it required orchestra members to speak various radio and TV slogans of the time. The revised version eliminates anything like that and now sounds simply like yet another of the innumerable pieces of minimalist, going-nowhere “background music” in which the layers of instruments produce textures but ultimately communicate very little with them. This is a (+++) Navona CD that, like many similar ones, will appeal to listeners who simply want to hear what some contemporary composers are doing with now-common techniques – but it should be noted that Consolamentum is an unusually involving use of various modern musical approaches.
Another (+++) Navona disc features a composer who is more willing to embrace tonality and even some Romantic-era gestures when those are appropriate for communicating his ideas. Mark John McEncroe’s Symphonic Poem—The Passing is a short work, seven-and-a-half minutes, that is supposed to express the difficult necessity of letting go of old ideas. There could be an intriguing musical way to express this, by using avowedly Romantic material in the early part of the work and transfiguring it gradually into something more distinctly modern. McEncroe, though, keeps the material moderately paced and moderately tonal throughout, with a wide variety of cymbal-clash-accentuated climaxes that appear more or less randomly. The work is quite easy to listen to, certainly by comparison with many other orchestral pieces by contemporary composers, but it has little sense of progress or of distinct forward motion: it meanders, staying in pretty much the same emotional and musical territory throughout. The seven-movement Symphonic Suite No. 1—A Modern Medieval Tale is well-written and shows a sure command of the orchestra, but it is not especially strongly tied either to the past or to the present. The tone painting tends to be rather obvious, as in the contrast between the suite’s third movement (“Rising Discontent”) and its fourth (“Peasants’ Uprising”). From a musical standpoint, McEncroe does not seem entirely sure of whether he wants the audience to take the suite at face value or with a sense of irony, although his discussion of the material suggests he is quite serious about it, believing it illustrates the idea that human beings are as tied to the flaws in their nature today as they were in medieval times. As with Symphonic Poem—The Passing, this suite is considerably more “listenable” than is a great deal of contemporary music. Indeed, simply listening to these two orchestral works without trying to impart any particular meaning to them – hearing them as a sort of film music without visuals, which is a pretty fair description of their overall sound – leads to a satisfying experience. It is only when one tries to find and accept the deeper meanings that McEncroe wants his music to have that the works fall short.