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Peter Dickinson
Gramophone, November 2008

Copland’s concise Piano Concerto languished virtually unknown for decades after its 1926 premiere. Then Copland recorded it himself with Bernstein in 1962 and others followed. The first of its two movements is a spacious outpouring of fanfares and blues and the second is a crazy kind of supercharged ragtime that really upset the Boston audience and critics. It shows how Copland exploited the jazz age to brilliant effect. A thoroughly efficient performance with Pasternack…In spite of two recordings, The Tender Land is considered unsuccessful as an opera. It has never been produced for TV as intended, and even this effective suite from it is rarely performed. The story is about a girl leaving home and it’s even been suggested that it could have been a cover for a gay boy coming out. It’s Copland in gentle rural mode not long after Appalachian Spring.

The two sets of Old American Songs (the first one contains the Appalachian Spring Shaker hymn) are best known in the versions for solo voice and piano although these choral arrangements—not by Copland—can be compared with orchestral versions with Thomas Hampson. These infectiously enjoyable settings work well, especially those arranged by Irving Fine: good soloists in a relaxed choral context.

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, November 2008

Everything about this CD is as near to perfect as near to perfect gets; program, performances, and recording are all in the A-plus category. This is a proud addition to Naxos’s Copland discography, and will be to yours as well. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

American Record Guide, September 2008

Naxos hits one out of the park with this all-Copland release for people who don’t like Copland. Who can resist the Old American Songs in any form, especially these lively and engaging arrangements for baritone, chorus, and orchestra? The conductor founded the chorus in the early 1980s, and it responds to his leadership with warmth and commitment. Neither conductor nor singers condescend to the music, but simply present the songs as the simple, tuneful, enjoyable works they are. Both sets are here, mostly arranged by Irving Fine, with a pair by Glenn Koponen and one by Raymond Wilding-White, identified as a student of Copland in some sources.

Joseph Horowitz’s informative, lively notes point out the similarities between Copland’s jazzy Piano Concerto and Gershwin’s nearly contemporary Rhapsody in Blue, though the latter strikes me as the more engaging, thematically original work that better integrates the popular and “classical” idioms. But the two-movement work at hand is hardly a dud, at least not in the capable hands of Messrs Pasternack and Hanson.

There have been few composers whose idioms are less suited to opera than Aaron Copland’s, and the notes quote some of his own unsentimental comments on his second opera, The Tender Land, premiered in 1954 at New York City Opera, along with a not-so-effective attempt to explain how Copland used the work to respond to McCarthyism. Although the plot of The Tender Land is not without dramatic potential, Copland’s music, even in the orchestral suite he arranged, seems uniformly placid, pastoral, and entirely too gentle to hold the stage. But the 20-minute suite works nicely, the pastoral Introduction and Love Music from Act III and the Promise of Living finale of Act I surrounding the livelier Party Scene of Act II. This orchestra and conductor seem born to play this music.

Gone are the days when we used to recommend Naxos recordings on value for money with caveats about slightly sub-par sound quality. The sonics here are state of the art, flattering to voices, orchestra, and the piano.

One can hear music-making on a remarkably high level in places like Des Moines, Omaha, and Elgin, Illinois, without the hassle of battling traffic to get to old, downtown concert venues. The Elgin Symphony is a fine example from the growing ranks of these regional and smaller-city orchestras whose playing is not surprising because it isn’t quite on the level of the Big Five but rather because it comes so close. Let’s hope this sells well and Naxos will record more Americana with this ensemble.

Tony Haywood
MusicWeb International, August 2008

I was full of admiration for Benjamin Pasternack’s previous CD of Copland’s solo piano music; indeed, it became one of my discs of the year and has been played often since. So this new release already created some anticipation, as I have always had a soft spot for the rarely heard Piano Concerto as well as looking forward to the other works here.

In fact, the planning on this new Naxos release is very intelligent indeed. I don’t recall having heard the suite from Copland’s little-known opera The Tender Land before, but suffice to say it is full of what might be termed the best of his popular style. As befits the subject matter—the vicissitudes of a simple farming family in the Depression-hit South of the 1930s—the music is redolent of Appalachian Spring, the film music to Of Mice and Men and other ‘wide-open’ scores of the 1940s and 1950s. The Suite he extracted from the opera, which was not a success after its New York premiere in 1954, is in three movements. The Introduction is replete with those open fourths and fifths in the brass, the Love Music that follows it enjoying the simplest and most affecting of melodic lines. The lively rhythms of the Party Scene which follows could be out of Billy the Kid, whilst the ringing affirmation of the Finale: The Promise of Living, are about as American as Copland ever got. It is well worth making an acquaintance with and note writer Joseph Horowitz admits to preferring it to the flawed opera.

The Piano Concerto is firmly rooted in the 1920s, though once again the glorious introductory bars, where horns, trumpets and trombones exchange bold fanfares, points to his later style. It’s usually referred to as his jazziest work, and there are lots of elements to back this up, particularly the second movement, where Copland clearly has Gershwin in his sights, though with very different results. But the opening movement, for all its ‘blue note’ leaning, has more in common with the angular dissonance of the Piano Variations, written just a few short years later. The Concerto is a marvellous work, full of New York swagger but tightly constructed—rather like the more popular Clarinet Concerto—and it’s a real mystery why it doesn’t crop up on more concert programmes. There have been some good recordings over the years, including the benchmark version from the composer himself with Bernstein at the helm, though it does sound rather aggressively bright by modern standards. I’ve tended to stick by an excellent RCA recording from Garrick Ohlsson and the San Francisco Symphony under Tilson-Thomas, part of an excellent Copland survey he undertook in the early 1990s (Copland—The Modernist, c/w Orchestral Variations, Symphonic Ode and Short Symphony). I have to say this newcomer runs it close, with orchestral playing every bit as solid and assured. The string tone of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, another new name to me, is superb and the brass and wind sections are easily as sonorous and colourful as their more famous counterparts. Pasternack shows once again that he is completely inside Copland’s style, and the very tricky passages of the second movement are just as effective as Ohlsson’s more overtly virtuosic reading.

The disc rounds off its rarity value in style with arrangements of Copland’s popular Old American Songs, originally for voice and piano but here transcribed to include chorus and orchestra by Irving Fine, R. Wilding-White and Glenn Koponen. It works very well, with the St Charles Singers relishing the allusions to folk ballads, minstrel tunes, hymns and children’s tunes. The lyrics—included in the booklet—may be pure cornball in places (‘My pig says ‘griffey, griffey…’) but they’re great fun and the chorus approach them in this spirit.

The recorded sound is warm and generous, coping with the thicker textures well, and good liner-notes complete a very desirable Copland selection.

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, July 2008

Thankfully this isn’t the umpteenth recording of Appalachian Spring but a collection of lesser-known Copland. As always this music is quintessentially American, the suite from his opera The Tender Land, the bluesy piano concerto and the Old American Songs, the latter in choral arrangements. Appropriately enough the orchestra is the Illinois-based Elgin Symphony, which has embarked on an ambitious project called In Search of Our American Voice. Helping them in this endeavour are the St. Charles Singers, a multi-talented chamber choir founded in 1984.

Speaking of voices, Copland has a unique, instantly recognisable ‘voice’ of his own and that is clear from the first bars of The Tender Land suite. In his illuminating liner-notes Joseph Horowitz reminds us that although this has a Depression-era rural setting one could argue that, in part at least, it’s also Copland’s response to the McCarthyist witch hunt of the 1950s.

Interestingly the suite, arranged after the opera’s premiere in 1954, starts with the introduction to Act 3 and the love duet between the farm girl Laurie Moss and her drifter beau, Martin. The second movement is based on the party in Act II and the final movement comes from the quintet,’ ‘The Promise of Living’, at the end of Act I.

Whatever Copland’s intentions the music is not far removed from the Pennsylvanian hills of Appalachia, with its open, unpretentious scoring. The usual epithets ‘folksy’ and ‘homespun’ apply but there is also a degree of disquiet reflected in the brass at the start of this movement. The ensuing harp melodies are most affecting in their simplicity and directness, Robert Hanson securing warm, idiomatic playing from his orchestra.

The recording is clear and detailed, notably in the vigorous party music, and there’s no sign of strain or grain in the climaxes. Indeed, it’s an almost perfect acoustic for such a lucid score, the surging music of the last movement lovingly shaped and projected. This is vintage Copland and hearing this music may spur you to try the opera itself.

Horowitz makes the point that Copland’s piano concerto was somewhat eclipsed by Gershwin’s much better known effort, written the year before. It doesn’t have the latter’s Broadway-inspired razzamatazz but what it does have is a more sophisticated, cosmopolitan feel to it. The insouciant, bluesy first movement—introduced with the usual fanfare—has the pianist doodling quietly at the keyboard. Benjamin Pasternack captures the languor of this movement very well indeed, the piano ideally placed and faithfully recorded. Copland’s detailed scoring is wonderfully realised too, the more expansive moments thrillingly intense but never overheated.

The doodler is back in the second movement, his random notes followed by raucous music that has a real swing to it. The drums and percussion are certainly reminiscent of Gershwin but there is a fresh, individual quality to this concerto. Pasternack is suitably foot-stompin’ in those repeated jazzy phrases and the Elgin players give him wonderful support throughout. But it’s the final minute or so that’s the real tour de force, with the splendid percussion chasing the pianist all the way to the finish line.

This is exhilarating stuff and quite possibly the most enjoyable item on the disc—go on, give it another whirl—so the choral arrangements of the Old American Songs needs to be pretty special to top that. Most listeners probably know these pieces in their original scoring for voice and piano; if that’s the version you want do try Willard White on Chandos CHAN 8960.

Alas, first impressions of the choral arrangements aren’t very encouraging, baritone Nathaniel Stampley’s rather wide vibrato spoiling ‘The Boatmen’s Dance’. The St. Charles singers are another matter entirely; they are clear and nimble and, to be fair, Stampley does improve in ‘The Dodger’. Those who have heard Willard White in this repertoire will know just how much character and personality he brings to bear in these songs. Well worth seeking out.

The Elgin Symphony is never less than excellent and the chorus sing eloquently in the ballad ‘Long Time Ago’. Diction could be clearer but with such heartfelt singing it seems churlish to complain. And then there’s ‘Simple Gifts’, the Shaker hymn we know from Appalachian Spring, essayed here with a wonderful sense of innocence and optimism. They even manage the farmyard onomatopoeia of ’I Bought Me a Cat’ which, if you don’t mind this kind of silliness, will probably put a smile on your face.

Really it’s the chorus that makes these arrangements stand out; their bright, focused sound is invariably pleasing, even if the music doesn’t always sound like Copland. They are also suitably impassioned—febrile, even—in the Revivalist hymn ‘Zion’s Walls’. Then Stampley and tenor Jeffrey Hunt join them for a spirited rendition of ’The Golden Willow Tree’. Both soloists acquit themselves well here and for once the quirky orchestration actually sounds like authentic Copland.

Of the two remaining songs the hymn tune ‘At The River’ could have been penned by Charles Ives, such is its mix of devotional text and strange harmonies. Hanson and his band bring this music to a stirring close before launching into the utterly delightful ‘Ching-a-ring Chaw’. If you haven’t smiled so far then this will surely do the trick, the singing and playing pin-sharp and full of fun. An upbeat finale to an enchanting disc.

Minor caveats about the baritone aside this is another collection of American classics that deserves the highest praise. With exemplary playing, singing and an acoustic to match this is plainly indispensable. And the song texts are included as well, which is a welcome bonus. Buy it and enjoy.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2008

Internationally unknown, the Elgin Symphony here add to the CD catalogue a disc of Copland that is of outstanding quality. Headed by Robert Hanson, their conductor for the past 34 years, the performance of the suite from the opera,The Tender Land, could hardly sound more American, the amount of inner detail revealed and the beauty of the playing more than rivalling their famous named counterparts. They have a lovely woodwind section, a solo horn that is a class act, with the playing of the whole orchestra of heartwarming elegance. When Copland asks for an outgoing show of brilliance, the Elgin provide it in abundance. The sleeve note writer reminds us that the audience at the premiere of the Piano Concerto thought it to be some kind of sick joke. Now a respected part of the concert repertoire, it receives a peppery and spiky performance from Benjamin Pasternack who has already contributed a major recording of Copland’s Piano Sonata to the Naxos catalogue. His view does see humour in the score, and extracts every ounce of jazzy influence in which the work abounds. Virtuosity and delicacy sit side by side, his style of playing taking both extremes. The disc is completed by transcriptions for chorus and orchestra of the two volumes of Old American Songs originally written for baritone and piano. I imagine in performance they could be a disaster as they depend on the clean word definition that a solo singer can achieve. Fortunately we have the St. Charles Singers who, like the orchestra, come from Illinois. The booklet does not make clear whether they are a professional ensemble, but on this showing they could stand comparison with any American group. These are voices of real quality, the diction immaculate, the balance between male and female exactly weighted, and intonation that is impeccable. When discovering artists you have never heard before, it is all too easy to get carried away, but for me this has been by a large margin the most enjoyable Naxos disc of the month.

Bryant Manning
Time Out Chicago, June 2008

In his memoirs, Hungarian and longtime Londoner Sir Georg Solti described American musical training as the envy of the world. That might help explain how a regional orchestra from Elgin, Illinois, just released one of the surprise discs of 2008. For the first time in its 58-year history, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra has set its blood and sweat to record, and with this all-Copland program for Naxos, it shows why classically oriented old-time Americana can party with the jug bands and blues squads.

The St Charles Singers peppily render ten “Old American Songs”—drawn from minstrel tunes, folk ballads, children’s songs, hymns and lullabies. As hokey as many of the songs may be (“My hen says ‘shimmy shack, shimmy shack’?”), the singers play up the jovial schmaltz, making guilty pleasures out of sing-alongs like “look out boys, he’s a dodgin’ for your dimes.” In “The Golden Willow Tree,” Nathan Stampley’s sure-footed baritone complements Jeffrey Hunt’s understated tenor.

The suite from the modest opera The Tender Land is the Copland we most associate with the New York composer. The melancholic-but-uplifting strings recall every Tom and Ma Joad jettisoning their ravaged prairie lives. Director Robert Hanson provokes long, lucid lines from the ESO that never become muddied. The Piano Concerto (1926) was a wildly rhythmic creation for its time, and soloist Benjamin Pasternack supplies all the improvisatory motion in Copland’s “snappy numbers,” as the composer once called them.

This is an exceptional introduction to an organization long overdue for some national—and even international—exposure.

James Leonard, June 2008

In the case of this Naxos disc with Robert Hanson leading the Elgin Symphony Orchestra in works by American composer Aaron Copland, the definitive recordings come from the composer himself, who taped all the works included here either for RCA or Columbia. And though in every case Copland’s own recordings are superior, this disc still ought to be heard by anyone who loves the music.

Copland’s recording of the orchestral suite from his opera The Tender Land with the Boston Symphony is both warmer and richer in tone than this one, but Hanson and the Illinois musicians clearly love the music and their affection shows in their big-hearted performance. Similarly, though Copland’s recording of the Piano Concerto with the composer as soloist and Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic is bolder and more rhythmically driven than this one, pianist Benjamin Pasternack is a powerful soloist who brings enough energy and virtuosity to the work to make it sound bright, shiny, and new, particularly in the closing Allegro assai.

The final pair of works here are the two books of Old American Songs in the version for chorus, soloists, and orchestra; however, the earlier recordings with heroic baritone William Warfield and Copland leading the Columbia Symphony far outrank these with blustery baritone Nathaniel Stampley. Despite his manifest enthusiasm, Stampley adds nothing to these familiar pieces and the St Charles Singers, though obviously a fine chorus, lack the weight and strength to make these straightforward songs succeed.

Still, all these pieces need these performances if they are to continue to be part of the living repertoire, and as additions to the Copland catalog, Hanson, Pasternack, and the Elgin Symphony’s performances will be welcome by fans of the American composer. Naxos’ sound is clean and cool.

Robert Baxter
Courier-Post, June 2008

An all-Copland disc introduces the Elgin (Ill.) Symphony Orchestra on the Naxos label

Robert Hanson and his orchestra give a persuasive performance of the orchestral suite from Copland’s opera, “The Tender Land.” The love music blossoms under Hanson’s baton.

The conductor and his orchestra catch the jaunty, jazzy charm of Copland’s Piano Concerto. Soloist Benjamin Pasternack revels in the bluesy opening movement and sounds comfortable in the jazz-flavored second movement…the chorus sings expressively in “I Bought Me a Cat” but makes a dulled effect in “Simple Gifts” and “At the River.”

Jim Edwards
Daily Herald (IL), May 2008

But for a project like this, not just any record company would do. The world’s largest classical label, Naxos, sent out their first line team of engineers from London Town under the leadership of legendary engineer Tim Handley. You can sure find Naxos CDs at your local book store/ music mart.

These magazines’ critics will have nothing but fun reviewing this disc. Relax, sit back and let the brass section of the Elgin Symphony under Hanson take you to musical nirvana right from the first track of the disc, The Tender Land Suite.

The Naxos sound engineers have done their job brilliantly. When you hear brass you are sitting directly in front of the trumpets. When you hear the piano, you are on the piano bench dodging those marvelous hands of Pasternack as he “tickles the ivories”. And when you hear the voices in the Old American Songs (10) you are right there standing by the soloist in front of Director Jeff Hunt’s St Charles Singers hearing great musical Americana.

Only rarely are orchestras given the privilege of doing studio recordings these days. It is far cheaper to simply record a “live” performance. A studio recording, however, allows the musicians to make corrections and adjust their performance for greater clarity and effect.

Having heard one of the fine live performances of these Copland works, what I hear on their CD surpasses even the live performance. The Elgin Symphony Orchestra has reached a new musical “high”, in this, their first professional CD recording. I smell a 2008 Grammy nomination.

Bill Gowen
The Beacon-News, May 2008

Already the fastest-growing regional orchestra in the United States, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra will make a quantum leap Tuesday with the release of its first commercially recorded compact disc.

And it’s for none other than Naxos, which, since its founding in 1987, has become the world’s best-selling classical music label. The ESO’s disc, part of Naxos’ critically acclaimed “American Classics” series, contains music by Aaron Copland (1900–90).

I have listened over the past several weeks to an advance copy of the recording, and can say without hesitation that it is one of those discs that lovers of classical music (and Copland in particular) will return to time and again. To have professional music organizations of the high artistic level of the ESO and St Charles Singers in our area is especially gratifying.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group