March 22, 2018


Copland: Orchestral Works, Volume 2—Symphony for Organ and Orchestra; Orchestral Variations; Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2); Symphonic Ode. Jonathan Scott, organ; BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Wilson. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Copland: Orchestral Works, Volume 3—An Outdoor Overture; Symphony No. 1; Statements; Dance Symphony. BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Wilson. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Dag Wirén: Symphony No. 3; Serenade for String Orchestra; Divertimento; Sinfonietta. Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

     Aaron Copland’s popularity rests on a small subset of his works, pieces written overtly in folk/popular mode: Lincoln Portrait, Billy the Kid, Rodeo, Appalachian Spring, El Salón Mexico, Fanfare for the Common Man. But there was much more to Copland than this, an entire body of more overtly serious, even experimental music that was very much in tune with the times in which it was written and that also reached out into new areas and explored them. Copland may not have been an innovator in the mode of, for example, Stravinsky, but he was subject to many of the same influences and interpreted them in his own way – including, among other things, the influence of Nadia Boulanger and of the overall musical climate of Paris in the 1920s, plus the influence of jazz at a time when it had not yet become pervasive. Somewhat like Leonard Bernstein, Copland wrote works overtly intended for popular consumption and others that he took very seriously and of which he was quite proud, but that never attained the popularity or frequency of performance of his easier-to-hear, easier-to-follow music. All this makes the ongoing Chandos project to record Copland’s orchestral works in performances by the BBC Philharmonic under John Wilson quite valuable and very much welcome. Much of the more-popular material was offered on the first SACD of the series; the second and third have turned to some substantial but less-known music – in particular, Copland’s symphonies and other symphony-like works. Copland is scarcely thought of as a symphonic composer, a fact that is partly his own fault: only his Symphony No. 3 (1944-1946), which incorporates Fanfare for the Common Man, has anything approaching recognizable, much less conventional, symphonic structure. But Copland toyed with symphonic style for many years before this work – and “toyed” is not really the right word, because he was quite serious about rethinking what a symphony could be and how the orchestra could be used within an extended formal structure that, if not recognizably a traditional symphony, was certainly symphonic in outlook and instrumentation.

     The second and third Copland SACDs on Chandos show the composer in full-fledged symphonic mode – and Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic treat this material with the same care, sensitivity and intensity that they would bring to European symphonies of the same period, showing that Copland’s music speaks clearly in geographical areas well beyond the borders of the United States, despite the close association between him and rural and Western America. Anyone interested in Copland’s universality of expression and in his symphonic output in particular will surely want both these discs, which complement and supplement each other intriguingly. In particular, Symphony No. 1 appears on both releases – in its two separate guises. Originally created as Symphony for Organ and Orchestra in 1924, the work was arranged by Copland for orchestra without organ in 1926-1928 after the composer realized that it would likely be performed far more often (and somewhat more easily) without an organist being required. The 1924 version is more interesting, fully integrating the organ (which is very well played by Jonathan Scott) into the orchestral fabric, but using the instrument quite differently from the way Saint-Saëns used it in his “Organ” Symphony of 1886. There is, however, a definite French connection between the two works: Copland wrote his under the influence of Nadia Boulanger and dedicated it to her, and she played the organ in its first performance. The later version, known simply as Symphony No. 1, seems sturdier and less innovative than the earlier one even though the notes are essentially the same. The comparison is fascinating, and both performances here are exemplary.

     The other works on these two releases are also decidedly symphonic. Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2), which dates to 1931-1933, and Symphonic Ode (1927-1928, but revised as late as 1955) both contain some melodies, flourishes and rhythms that are identifiably “Copland-esque” in terms of being used in some of his better-known music. But both are dense, rhythmically complex works, each being written in a single large-scale movement within which multiple sections offer a wide variety of challenges both to performers and to listeners’ ears. Tightly integrated and carefully structured, they are works of considerable impact within their comparatively brief durations. The Volume 2 disc containing them also includes Orchestral Variations, a 1957 orchestral arrangement of the 1930 Piano Variations and a work that sounds completely different – and considerably more intense – in full-orchestra garb. On the Volume 3 disc, the works offered in addition to Symphony No. 1 include yet another piece with symphonic aspirations: Dance Symphony (1929), a far-from-lighthearted arrangement of music from Copland’s vampire ballet Grohg – anyone led by the work’s title to expect even the slightest frothiness will be quite surprised at the pervasive darkness of the music. This too is a piece conceived as a single large-scale movement made up of multiple short sections, and although it is not as tightly constructed as Short Symphony or Symphonic Ode, it is impressively orchestrated and makes its points effectively. All these works are redolent to some degree of the times in which they were written – and Statements (1932-1935) is even more so. Dissonant and almost self-consciously modernist in its six-movement construction, the work is a series of miniatures adding up to a 1930s version of a suite – but one with no vestiges of dance and little gaiety about it. In strong contrast, An Outdoor Overture (1938) is the lightest, brightest and most accessible work on either of these SACDs. Originally written for performance by students at the High School of Music and Art in New York City, this festive piece amply repays the attention it gets from a first-class professional orchestra and a conductor as sensitive as Wilson is to the work’s frequent mood and tempo changes (11 of the latter in eight-and-a-half minutes). Listeners who know only more-familiar Copland will find these two releases genuinely revelatory, while those who already know at least some of these works will revel in the quality of the playing here as well as in the sonic excellence of the recordings.

     Another 20th-century composer who wrote three numbered symphonies but is rarely thought of as a symphonist is Dag Wirén, who indeed is scarcely thought of at all – even in his native Sweden – except insofar as he is known for his wonderful Serenade for Strings of 1937. Wirén (1905-1986) was a contemporary of Copland (1900-1990), but his focus throughout his small compositional output was nearly always on absolute music rather than music designed to evoke specific scenes (although he did write three ballets). The four Wirén works on a new Chandos SACD fall neatly into two categories: earlier ones that are light, even buoyant, easy to hear and mood-boosting, and later ones that remain readily accessible but that communicate more substantially and substantively, albeit without delivering any specific messages. Rumon Gamba and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra deserve a vote of thanks for showing that there is more to Wirén than the Serenade for Strings, although it must be said that their performance of that lovely work is as fine as anyone could wish – a genuine pleasure to hear. The other relatively early piece on this disc is Sinfonietta in C (1933-1934, revised 1939), and it too is delightful – and has some genuinely innovative touches, such as an opening theme (or at least an opening rhythm) on, of all instruments, the snare drum. Simplicity and clarity in a kind of Stravinsky-ish neoclassical mode are the order of the day here, and the work has an effect somewhat akin to that of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony – although, unlike that work but like several of Copland’s symphonic pieces, it is played as a single extended movement containing multiple sections. In contrast, Wirén’s Symphony No. 3 (1943-1944), although lacking in thematic richness, is structurally sound, even impressive, both opening and closing in a mood and orchestration distinctly reminiscent of Sibelius. Dedicated “to my parents,” the symphony eventually builds to a whole so cohesive that it comes across as a single large sonata-form work even though, in this case, the piece is broken up into individual movements (the first and second attacca, the third and longest separate). And Divertimento (1953-1957), despite its title, is scarcely diverting – it defies expectations much as Copland’s Dance Symphony belies its title. Wirén offers some playful material here, but most of the effects are more serious: the intensity of the double basses in the second of the four movements stands out, as do the lyricism-within-dissonance of the third, slow movement and the power with which the percussion (silent in the third movement) opens the finale. Wirén was far from prolific and may not have been a substantially innovative composer, but his music shows strength of construction, cleverness of instrumentation, and a determination to engage listeners in the manner of the best absolute music of any era. Gamba and Chandos have done both Wirén and listeners a genuine favor with this fine recording and the unexpected delights it offers.

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