Copland Chamber Music

In Appalachian Spring, Copland, a Brooklyn boy who had never even visited the Appalachians, created an unforgettable evocation. Within two years of its first performance (on October 30, 1944, at the Library of Congress) Appalachian Spring went determinedly and, one presumes, permanently, into the standard repertory ...


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There’s something very fresh and innocent about the original score for Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring. The background to the composition of the work is now well known – especially how, as Copland has said, the composer wasn’t informed of the title of the work until after he had completed the score! Yet how well the music fits its title! This is the well known orchestral suite played by the thirteen instruments for which it was conceived. Much as I love the full orchestral version it can, at times, seem overblown for such simple, straightforward, homely, music – ’tis the gift to be simple, as they say – and in this performance simplicity is to the fore.

When I first heard the original scoring, in Copland’s own 1973 recording of the complete (32 minute) score, with the Columbia Chamber Ensemble, I was struck by how much Stravinsky there was in the music; rhythmically, this is a very strong work. In that performance, Copland is at pains to point each movement, make it tell in its own way, as if he were conducting for the dance. It made Appalachian Spring a stronger work for this approach. I have never heard it performed that way since. I should point out that with all the colours available, this approach isn’t necessary in the orchestral version. This performance is beautiful, to be sure, every note is well placed, the ensemble plays beautifully, the balance is superb, it is, as I wrote earlier, simplicity itself, but there’s no elevation; the music never really takes flight. A real sense of real action is missing. Interestingly, at the climax at 11:57 something happens and we seem to be in a different performance. There is a much better sense of the music, more involvement and to the end there’s a sense of purpose which I felt missing from the earlier music.

A mere seven seconds separate this from the thornier Nonet for strings. During the 1950s Copland took an interest in serialism and wrote several works with his own distinctive use of the technique – the Piano Fantasy (1955), and the orchestral works Connotations (1962) and Inscape (1967). Written in this, new style, Nonet was not favourably received at its première but these days it poses no problems, indeed, it is a most lyrical work. The scoring, for three each of violins, violas and cellos, is clear and clean, with no heaviness in the bass, which could so easily happen. This is a lovely performance, warm and friendly.

A too short nine second pause separates mature Copland from early Copland – the Two Pieces for string quartet. The second piece was written first as the second part of an Hommage à Fauré and it’s based on the letters of his name, married to a bit of jazz and bi-tonality. The first piece is an intense Lento molto which is eloquent in its straightforward way. It’s not to be confused with a Lento espressivo for quartet from 1923, which stands as a separate work. Here the Lento is very good, but the Rondino lacks bounce.

These are serviceable performances and enjoyable. 

Bob Briggs,

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