COPLAND Symphony No 1. Dance Symphony
As with the previous instalment, this third volume of John Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic’s survey of Copland’s orchestral music focuses on works from the 1920s and ’30s. All remain rarities in the concert hall, even in the States. Such neglect is perplexing in the case of An Outdoor Overture, a sweetly tuneful, purposefully sunny score written concurrently with Billy the Kid – although, frankly, none of the other pieces is all that challenging, especially in performances as affectionate and refined as these.
Copland described his music of this period as ‘hard-bitten’, and that’s exactly how these pieces come across in the recordings he made with the LSO in the late 1960s (Sony): gritty and intense, if a bit unruly. Wilson’s approach is markedly different, yet eloquent in its own right. Take ‘Militant’, the opening movement of Statements. Copland’s performance is strident and sharp-edged; Wilson’s is rounded and polished, the BBC Philharmonic strings navigating the angular melodic lines with athletic elegance. In ‘Cryptic’, the second movement, Wilson finds a reflective, elegiac tone rather than the pained grieving Copland evokes.
In fact, it’s in quiet, lyrical passages that Wilson is at his most compelling. Listen, for instance, to the tender delicacy of the passage beginning at 3'38" in An Outdoor Overture, or to the magical play of clarinet, harp and strings at 2'18" in the first movement of the Dance Symphony. The unfailingly exquisite contribution of the BBC Philharmonic’s first-desk woodwinds deserves special praise, as does Chandos’s engineering, which is airy and detailed as well as thrillingly vivid.
Dorati’s incisively dramatic Decca recording (10/82) ties the score back to its roots as a fantastical ballet and remains primus inter pares. Wilson’s interpretation of the First Symphony, on the other hand, comes as something of a revelation. Copland’s rewrite of his Organ Symphony to dispense with the organ part has generally been considered inferior. Wilson gave a fine account of the original in Vol 2 (A/16). Here, perhaps to make up for the loss of the organ’s powerful sonority, he inspires the orchestra to play with additional intensity. The result is riveting and, best of all, wholly satisfying. All in all, a thought-provoking release.