December 11, 2008


Copland: Symphony No. 1; Short Symphony (No. 2); Dance Symphony. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $8.99.

Copland: Symphony No. 3; Billy the Kid Suite. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Judd. Naxos. $8.99.

Anderson: Orchestral Music, Volume 5: Goldilocks (excerpts); Suite of Carols (version for woodwinds); Goldilocks: Lady in Waiting, waltz; Shall I Take My Heart, instrumental. Kim Criswell, soprano; William Dazeley, baritone; BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $8.99.

     There is something quintessentially American, in very different ways, about Aaron Copland and Leroy Anderson. Copland is the American composer to many people, although in fact he was closer to being two composers: one attuned to popular idioms and ease of connection with the audience, the other more “difficult” and experimental in approach. Anderson, although classically trained, carved out an almost-pop-music niche for himself through his many short compositions for the Boston Pops Orchestra – and he was strongly in tune with the technology of his time, designing most of those short works to fit on one side of a 78-rpm vinyl record.

     Copland’s music has become international. The Bournemouth and New Zealand Symphony Orchestras play it as well and with as much verve as any American ensemble, and it scarcely matters that Marin Alsop is American by birth while James Judd is British: both show plenty of affinity for Copland’s infectious rhythms, his blend of harmony and dissonance, and his approach to orchestration. Alsop’s new Copland CD is especially fine: she seems to have a genuine personal connection with this music. The Symphony No. 1 is actually a 1925 arrangement of Copland’s 1924 Organ Symphony, without the organ, whose parts are taken sometimes by winds and sometimes by brass. Copland thought this work would be heard more often if it did not require an organ, but in fact the organ version is deservedly performed more frequently: without that instrument, the piece – even when played as well as it is by the Bournemouth Symphony – seems rather stolid and ordinary. Not so the Short Symphony (1933), essentially a one-movement work with three sections (fast-slow-fast) and complex rhythms that Alsop highlights very well indeed. As for the Dance Symphony, is it earlier than the other works here, dating to 1922 and derived largely from a ballet that Copland was inspired to create by the very first Dracula film, the silent classic Nosferatu. There is nothing particularly demonic in the music, though: it flows well, especially in the second of its three movements (“Dance of the Girl Who Moves as if in a Dream”), and offers a level of lyricism absent from the other symphonies on the Alsop CD.

     James Judd’s Copland disc has been available for several years but is worth reconsidering in light of Alsop’s new release. The reason is the Symphony No. 3, the only one written by Copland that really assumes classical proportions and style. Judd treats the symphony in interesting ways – which will seem idiosyncratic to those used to other performances. The Scherzo is highly dynamic and the Andantino unusually slow (although never to the point of dragging); and the finale, which incorporates Fanfare for the Common Man, is strongly rhythmic and manages to conclude in triumph without sounding as pompous as it often does under other conductors. Judd’s is an unusual reading of the symphony and a very effective one, especially after repeated hearings – which it deserves. And Judd’s Billy the Kid Suite is grand, dramatic and toe-tappingly exuberant by turns – an excellent performance all around.

     Leonard Slatkin’s performances of Leroy Anderson’s orchestral works in Naxos’ ongoing Anderson series are excellent as well, but the fifth volume of the sequence offers rather thin musical gruel and therefore gets a (+++) rating despite the sensitive conducting and the fine playing of the BBC Concert Orchestra. This is quite a short CD – only 52 minutes – and is devoted almost entirely to Anderson’s one semi-successful Broadway show, Goldilocks (which, despite the title, has only a passing relationship to the fairy tale). The problem here is that Anderson’s usual pithiness and bounce are largely wasted on ordinary tunes and straightforward melodic development. The CD includes a couple of the musical’s undistinguished songs and quite a few of its bouncy but not particularly inspired dance numbers – “The Pussy Foot,” which is more or less a Charleston, is perhaps the best. Separated on the CD from the 11-track set of excerpts are two alternative versions of Goldilocks pieces, neither of which is of more interest than the ones included in the main sequence. As it happens, the most attractive music here is the Suite of Carols for woodwinds, which seems to catch more of the Christmas spirit than Anderson’s similar suites for brass and strings (those being available elsewhere in this series). In general, the settings of carols do not show Anderson at his most creative, but they have a pleasant sound in the woodwind version and speak nicely of his skill as an orchestrator. In any comprehensive survey of a composer’s music, there are bound to be lower spots as well as higher ones; this volume does not showcase Anderson at his best, but this music is still worth having for anyone interested in collecting both the better-known and less-known works of a composer with a distinctive American musical voice.

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