Copland Orchestral and Vocal Music

Dance Panels was written in 1959 at the suggestion of Jerome Robbins and was first performed in Munich in 1963. Copland wrote that “it is more abstract, and it is lyrical and slower in tempo that moist of my other ballet music. It does not tell a story or paint a picture of American life.” Copland was originally attracted by Emily Dickenson’s poem The Chariot, which contains the line “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.” In the late 1960s Copland orchestrated eight of the songs for the version performed here. The Short Symphony of 1933 is unquestionable a major work. Copland was always proud of it and referred to it as one of his ‘neglected children’. “If I expended a great deal of time and effort on the Short Symphony, it was because I was determined to write as perfected a piece as I possibly could.”


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Nimbus are doing admirers of Copland a great service through their reissue programme of recordings from the MusicMasters catalogue. The disc in question here is a straight re-run of a 1992 disc which I had not previously heard.

One of the great frustrations is how Copland's oeuvre is sharply divided by the listening public into a small selection of 'pops' and a large collection of rarely played or heard music. But much of this latter music is so very, very good. There seems to be no rhyme nor reason for this neglect. Take the first piece here - Dance Panels contains exactly the kind of rhythmic élan and nostalgic melody that makes Appalachian Spring so popular. Dip into the second or third movements (tracks 2 and 3) and you'll hear what I mean immediately. This is marvellous music and played as well here as I have ever heard. Ideally recorded too - clean and lean without being analytical. Dennis Russell Davies and his St Luke's players have the sense of this music to perfection. In the achingly beautiful Pas de Trois (track 4) they convey an ideal mix of yearning regret without toppling over into sentiment - coolly passionate. Instrumental balance is a thing of wonder too - and when Copland demands intricacy then there is technique to spare, complex rhythms tossed off effortlessly. Quintessentially American playing of a masterly score.

Just when I though things could not get better they do. Following on from Dance Panels is easily the finest recorded performance of Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson I have heard. These are Copland's own orchestral versions of eight of the twelve poems he set for female voice and piano. The singer here is Helene Schneiderman. She is listed as a mezzo soprano which is unusual given that these songs are most often recorded by sopranos and lyric ones at that - I'm thinking of Dawn Upshaw on Teldec or Barbara Hendricks on EMI. But Schneiderman effortlessly moves across the wide range demanded of these songs and her voice has the extra power and warmth in the lower register. Her ability to create a sense of musical line across the most widely spaced intervals is simply remarkable. Add a controlled vibrato that never loosens or blurs pitch centres and you have a musical instrument in perfect condition. Also, there is the slightest of American accent to her pronunciation which gives an element of vernacular to the performances which just oozes rightness. None of which would count for much if it wasn't backed up by musical insights that matched it but both Schneiderman and Russell Davies do. What I particularly admire is the way they find a balance between the deceptive simplicity of the texts and their musical settings and the power of the verse - the final song The Chariot contains the stunningly poignant couplet: 'Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me'. Again the orchestra are in tip-top form - sensitive and receptive to every mood. This must be a performance that existed before these sessions, it has a feeling of rightness and insight that springs from long acquaintance. This is magnificent music-making and easily one of the best recorded performances of anything I have heard so far this year.

The disc is completed by another technically immaculate and insightful performance of a further Copland rarity: the Short Symphony. My only caveat here is that it is not the original version but a reduced orchestration made by Russell Davies with the composer's blessing for use by this orchestra on tour. The benefits are again great clarity of texture and cleanness of execution as well as the ease that comes with the familiarity of repetition. So whilst we gain greatly in music-making terms if you are being totally correct what we hear is not 100% Copland. It is not made clear on the disc cover that this is the case but is mentioned in a note from the conductor in the liner. I should stress though that so fine is this performance too that any carping is just that and falls away in the presence of such high quality music-making. My only serious gripe about the disc is that we are given no biographical information about the performers at all. Not a word about the glorious Ms Schneiderman but we DO get a brief biography of Mr Tim Page who wrote part of the liner-note - and a very adequate liner-note it is too!

Once in a while you hear a performance that makes you want to go away and reassess all over again the work of a performer or composer who you thought you knew. This is one such disc - it has me reaching for all of my 'problematic' Copland discs all over again and has me looking out for any other recording featuring Ms Schneiderman. Well done to Nimbus for restoring it to the catalogue - although the relevance of the picture of the South African veldt on the cover eludes me! - and I hope it gets the maximum distribution it so richly deserves.

A life-enhancing disc of the highest possible quality

Nick Barnard,

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