In contrast with the first instalment of Chandos’s series of Copland’s orchestral music (3/16), which focused on the popular ballets, this second release delves into some of the composer’s less well-known symphonic works. The earliest piece here is the Organ Symphony, which Copland wrote in 1924 shortly after completing his studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. Despite the influence of European composers, Stravinsky in particular, on Copland’s writing at this time, it’s a dramatic and characterful piece that leaves a lasting impression. This superb performance by Jonathan Scott and John Wilson easily matches the classic 1960s version by E Power Biggs and Leonard Bernstein.
Although the Organ Symphony was considered modernist by critics of the day, the Symphonic Ode, completed in 1929, finds Copland using an altogether more abstract and dissonant style. Following the premiere under Koussevitzky, the score fell into neglect despite a revision in 1955 to reduce the size of the orchestral forces required. Both Michael Tilson Thomas and Copland himself have recorded the work to impressive effect but Wilson has a strong feel for the music and communicates an additional feeling of triumph in the closing section that’s enormously compelling.
Copland’s abstract period also manifests itself in the complex rhythms and lean scoring of the Short Symphony (Symphony No 2), completed in 1933, although the buoyant outer movements and wistful tenderness of the central section hint at the more populist idiom that would shortly follow. Copland’s own recording with the LSO has an unsurpassed communicative zeal but the playing is occasionally fallible, a charge that could never be laid against the superbly drilled and articulate response that Wilson obtains from the BBC Philharmonic.
Rounding off this collection is a grippingly intense performance of the Orchestral Variations, Copland’s 1957 transcription of his concentrated and astringent Piano Variations of 1930. Both the original piano version and the orchestral arrangement bear the influence of Schoenberg and neither has found much favour with performers or audiences. Nevertheless, as this performance makes clear, this powerful and imposing work is one of Copland’s greatest achievements. Copland made a strong case for it in his 1968 recording but Wilson’s version is even finer, and the recording is of demonstration quality. An outstanding release.