Copland: Orchestral Works

Author: 
Edward Seckerson

Copland: Orchestral Works

  • Symphony No. 3
  • Music for a Great City
  • Symphony No. 3
  • Music for a Great City

There are pages here to rival even Bernstein. Come the finale, Slatkin well and truly throws down the gauntlet: his ''Fanfare'' is impressive, and within bounds—the right side of credibility—but it's the contrapuntal jubilance, the dance of life at the heart of the movement that really begins to set the adrenalin flowing. And nowhere more so than at the moment when we see this raunchy music for what it really is: counterpoint in search of its theme—namely, the ''Fanfare'' itself. Slatkin forges a toughly syncopated climax in its wake, driving home the halting dissonance which by now seems somehow inevitable—a moment of truth. The most moving pages of all then ensue, and Slatkin is still unassailable weaving Copland's piccolo-led tracery (woodwind, harps, piano, celeste) towards a tremendous peroration. The anvil and xylophone hammer through terrifically at the close, heavy brass, bass drum and tam-tam ensuring a formidable pay-off.
So where are the drawbacks? Are there any? One or two: I am not entirely happy with the sound. Warmth, perspective and weight (handsome bass extension) are not a problem, but there is what can only be described as a curiously 'covered', unfocused quality which makes for a degree of opaqueness, particularly in the more densely scored tuttis. You need plenty of volume for the best effect. Not that Bernstein's live recording (DG, coupled with Quiet City) was ideal. Best for sound so far has been the 1987 EMI Mata/Dallas Symphony Orchestra disc (nla). Sound apart, though, I don't think Slatkin quite catches the sheer audacity of the scherzo. Bernstein is second-to-none here: the raucous trumpet cackles and side-drum rim-shots—their effect in the Slatkin is somewhat muted, though he does pull off a swaggering climax as the trio tune reappears unexpectedly in canon. Again, though, I should like to hear it in more sharply focused sound.
Slatkin's first and third movements seem to me ideal. He certainly honours Copland's instruction ''with simple expression'' as the New England/Quaker hymnody unfolds at the outset (Bernstein is inclined to burden these bars with 'significance'). The Saint Louis orchestra play very sweetly indeed as the words dolce, sonore and intensivo begin to appear on the page. The arch-like superstructure is surely drawn, its two climactic edifices like great pillars of support. In the slow movement, Bernstein achieves a greater sense of dream-like remoteness in the opening bars though Slatkin is by far the subtler of the two as solo flute spirits us into nostalgic reverie. The texture is gorgeously light and airy, even as the dancing grows more boisterous (Bernstein does rather rush his fences here), and Slatkin's control of the long, slow wind-down (the dream fading gradually into the deepest recesses of the mind) is masterly. I only wish he had held the pause on the final diminuendo in the strings just a shade longer (lunga, Copland marks) so as to heighten the moment at which the flutes so magically announce both ''Fanfare'' and finale. This is a performance of real distinction, though. Bernstein's burning conviction, his unique electricity, set him apart, but there's always room for more than one view.
Slatkin's coupling might sway some collectors. Copland's own 1966 CBS recording of Music for a Great City, his reworking (for the LSO's sixtieth-birthday season) of the score for Jack Garfine's 1961 film Something Wild, has not yet resurfaced on CD. But Slatkin's reading is a winner: gritty and urgent in Copland's suitably frantic evocation of the New York City ''Skyline'' with its jazz and latino explosions, not least the movement ''Subway Jam''—a kind of angry Rumba, fractured brass and percussion to the fore. ''Night Thoughts'' is Edward Hopper/Quiet City territory: now languid, now anxious, now wistful—a telling reminder of just how well Copland understood the soul of both rural and urban America.'

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