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Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, June 2009

Copland’s Symphony No.1, Short Symphony (No.2) and Dance Symphony are terrifically performed by Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony. Fine sound.

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, May 2009

This is a follow-on to Naxos 8.559106, which contained Copland’s Symphony No. 3 and suite from Billy the Kid. That release first appeared some seven years ago in 2002 with a different orchestra (the New Zealand Symphony) under a different conductor (James Judd). Since I was not able to locate an entry for it in the Fanfare Archive, I am assuming it was never submitted for review.

Aaron Copland (1900–1990) is not a composer whose name leaps to mind when one thinks of symphonies. Indeed, of his six orchestral works that are either formally designated as such or carry the word “symphony” or “symphonic” in their titles—Dance Symphony, Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, Symphonic Ode, Symphony No. 1, Short Symphony (No. 2), and Symphony No. 3—only the last named fits the traditional definition of what we typically think of as a symphony. And on this disc are two-thirds of them.

How, you are wondering, do the three works listed in the above headnote make two-thirds instead of half of six? Is Dubins being math challenged again? No, not exactly. The fact is that Copland’s Symphony No. 1 is, for all practical purposes, one and the same piece as his “Organ Symphony,” an early work written in 1923 while the composer was still under the influence of his teacher, Nadia Boulanger. Five years later, Copland rescored the symphony, replacing the organ with wind and brass instruments. The earlier organ version, however, was not withdrawn, so that what is essentially the same piece counts as two, with recordings of the original scoring outnumbering the later orchestra-only revision. In three movements (Andante, Allegro molto, Lento), the symphony is still a product of Copland’s time in Paris, where he was being groomed by Boulanger and being exposed particularly to the music of Stravinsky. Listen, for example, at around 3:30 of the Lento movement for echoes of The Rite of Spring. Polychordal and polyrhythmic writing are dominant in a score that is angular and tense even in its quieter, more lyrical passages. This is Copland before he traded his European beret for his American Stetson.

The Symphony No. 2, or Short Symphony, is also in three movements, but this time in a fast-slow-fast sequence. Ten years the earlier symphony’s junior, the piece was written in 1933 and was first performed in Mexico City in 1934 by the Mexico Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Carlos Chávez. Almost a study for one of Copland’s most popular works, the 1936 El salón México, the Short Symphony is now in that recognizable jazzy, spiky style of the composer in his Latin American and American Southwest period that would produce pieces such as Danzon cubano, Rodeo, and Billy the Kid. This symphony also exists in an alternate version as a sextet for two violins, viola, cello, clarinet, and piano.

From approximately the same period as the Symphony No. 1 comes Copland’s 1925 Dance Symphony. This work, too, had its origins in an earlier effort, the composer’s ballet Grohg, inspired, if that is the right word, by a necromantic German film, Nosferatu, which, in turn, was a more or less free adaptation of the vampiric Dracula novel. Once again in three movements—this time with the evocative titles “Dance of the Adolescent,” “Dance of the Girl Who Moves as if in a Dream,” and “Dance of Mockery”—the piece employs a large orchestra, including xylophone, harp, and glockenspiel, for a fiendish frolic that gives a new lease on death to the clattering skeletons in Saint-Saëns’s Dance macabre and “Fossils” movement from The Carnival of the Animals.

Compared to Copland’s popular symphonic ballet-cum-tone-poem works such as Appalachian Spring and the aforementioned Rodeo and Billy the Kid, not to mention the composer’s Clarinet Concerto, there are surprisingly few currently listed recordings of the works offered on this disc. Most shocking, in fact, is that this seems to be the only available CD containing the Symphony No. 1, though three may be had in its earlier organ version. We are fortunate, therefore, that Marin Alsop seems to have the beat of this music pulsing in her veins, and has been able to instill the feel for it in her Bournemouth players; for on every level—from technical precision and style-savvy, responsive readings to superb sound and recording—everything about this release is a winner. Strongly recommended.

Rick Anderson
Baker & Taylor CD Hotlist, April 2009

The brilliant conductor Marin Alsop leads the orchestra that seems, more than any, to enjoy a direct connection to her brain on this excellent program of Copland symphonies. The elegiac tones of the first symphony contrast particularly nicely with the spikier Short Symphony, and the Dance Symphony seems to synthesize both sides of Copland’s personality. Highly recommended.

George Dorris
Ballet Review, April 2009

In Copland’s ever-practical way, these three symphonies involve transcriptions of some kind. The 1931 Dance Symphony is excerpted from his early ballet Grogh, unperformed in his lifetime, the First Symphony in a 1928 reorchestration of the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924), and Short Symphony (1933) was soon reduced into the better-known Sextet. However, all offer prime Copland, with jazz elements he later dropped, but also the sonorities and vitality that look forward to the ballets that finally brought him popularity. Marin Alsop understands this, drawing strong, idiomatic performances from her British orchestra. There are also good notes.

Robert R Riley, March 2009

The influences of Stravinsky’s ballets and of Ravel’s music are the most salient features of these early Copland works. Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra catch all the fun syncopations and excitement in young Copland’s attempted assimilation of the Rite of Spring. Listen to the ripsnorter in the Molto allegro section of the second movement of the First Symphony. This is not great Copland, but it is great fun. I do not want to sound too dismissive, however: This needs to be included in any Copland collection.

Christopher L. Chaffee
American Record Guide, March 2009

Here we have three pieces from the 1920s and 30s, what we could call “Early” Copland. This music does not get as much attention as his “hits” that come later. It should. From the first few chords of each work, you can tell it is Copland. His musical identity is so strong you can never miss it, even in his first three big orchestral scores. There are no tunes you will walk away singing here. This is Copland before he turned populist, when he was still clearly under the influence of both Stravinsky and the French avant-garde. This is Copland the bumbling, studious kid from Brooklyn who sat for hours studying new scores in the New York Public Library and would later sit in rapt attention at some of the greatest Paris concerts of the early 20th Century. What would have become of this kid if he had not changed so much in the later 1930s? He still turned out OK, of course, but I do wonder.

The playing here is fantastic. Alsop creates a satisfying orchestral balance all the time, especially in this version of the first symphony that leaves out the organ in favor of heavy brass. Wind and string parts pop and sparkle, and all the angular moving lines have good shape and vitality. Engineering is quite good, too—everything is crystal clear, with nice depth, even when played on inferior equipment. If you want to explore early Copland, this is a great place to start.

David Hurwitz, February 2009

All of these works predate Aaron Copland’s populist American ballets, but they reveal perhaps even more tellingly just what a talented and individual voice he had right from the start. The most important piece here is the Short Symphony (a.k.a. Symphony No. 2), a stunning essay in rhythmic lyricism that was considered all but unplayable when written in 1933—so much so that Copland rewrote it as a sextet…the Bournemouth Symphony under Marin Alsop shows itself more than capable of mastering the music’s intricacies.

The other two performances are even finer. Alsop catches the bittersweet lyricism of the First Symphony’s outer movements very affectingly, while the whirlwind central scherzo is dazzling. The same observation holds true of the Dance Symphony, which works its way to a fine frenzy in a finale that strikingly anticipates the mature composer of the 1940s. Copland’s bright, open textures come across well in the problematic acoustic of the Poole concert hall; this is one of Naxos’ better recordings from this locale, graced with some really impressive bass sonorities. This is an intelligently planned and impressively executed disc.

Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News, January 2009

An altogether convincing and worthy disc of the OTHER Copland symphonies—the ones that are not his large-scale masterpiece, the Symphony No. 3, certainly one of the greatest symphonies ever written by an American. There are Spartan modern music partisans who will, in fact, insist that Copland’s first symphony from his 1924 Symphony for Organ and Orchestra is the great Copland Symphony. Or choose his Short Symphony from 1933. While it’s true that Copland’s musical personality was fully formed by the late ’20s, the later populist masterworks—and the wartime seriousness of the Third Symphony—take his work to another level entirely. Alsop and the Bournemouth Orchestra’s performances here on this budget-priced Naxos disc are predictably first rate, if not exactly inspired.

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, January 2009

At the helm is Marin Alsop who, as a Bernstein protégé, has assimilated her mentor’s instinctive feel for Copland’s music in general and his infectious rhythms in particular. And although she is now installed in Baltimore, Alsop continues to make fine discs with her erstwhile band, the Bournemouth Symphony; this includes an earlier recording of Copland’s Third Symphony (Naxos).

The quiet opening to the Prelude of Symphony No. 1 is pure Copland—gentle, lyrical, expansive—with some marvellous playing from flute and strings. The slow, rocking figures are nicely done, too, but the animated Scherzo reminds us that this is the composer fresh from his sojourn in Paris. The pounding, cymbal-capped climax at 1:57 isn’t that far from the primitivism of Stravinsky’s Rite, as is the sinuous woodwind writing thereafter.

Even here there is the transparency of texture we know from the later works, such as Appalachian Spring, with a hint of the raunchy rhythms of El Salón México. The bracing brass writing of the Finale has the effect of a tangy sorbet, cleansing the palate of any lingering sweetness. Copland’s is a direct, unassuming talent and even his more daring music has a lucidity that is most endearing. Alsop judges the first grinding climax very well indeed, investing the jaunty rhythms that follow with plenty of bounce. But it’s the final peroration—baying brass aided and abetted by snare and bass drums—that provides the biggest shot of adrenaline thus far.

Copland’s Short Symphony may be on a smaller scale but its rhythms are much more complex than anything we’ve yet heard. Alsop and the Bournemouth orchestra relish the mix of piquant harmonies and odd juxtapositions that make up the first movement. They also capture the sense of uneasy calm in the second—the warmth and amplitude of the recording very telling at the expansive climax—before returning to the lopsided rhythms and quirky humour of the first. This is music that cries out for the irrepressible, loose-limbed Lenny, who really knew how to spring these rhythms to great effect. That said, Alsop and her band of Brits do a sterling job.

The Dance Symphony has its roots in German Expressionist cinema but it’s no mere accompaniment to a silent film. Certainly in terms of structure it feels and sounds symphonic, not at all like a collection of dances. The yearning clarinet figure in the ‘Dance of the Adolescent’ is magically played but the masterstroke comes with the rippling harp entry at 2:17. Instantly we are pitched into the flickering world of Caligari and Nosferatu, both unsettling and unsettled. There is real pathos too—after all we do feel some sympathy for the monster, be it Nosferatu, Frankenstein or King Kong. The glockenspiel adds special colour to this strange danse macabre.

Listening to the ghostly ‘Dance of the Girl Who Moves as if in a Dream’ I was reminded of the quieter moments of Bartók’s ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. There is an underlying menace here—listen to those tolling woodwind figures—although there’s little explicit Bartókian barbarism. Still, the climax to the slinkily provocative ‘Dance of Mockery’ should send a shiver up your spine; it all ends in a paroxysm of orchestral violence.

A varied and engrossing survey of early Copland, well played and superbly recorded. Put away those much-played CDs of Appalachian Spring and try some earlier pieces instead—you won’t regret it. I’d put this newcomer alongside the Naxos recording of The Tender Land Suite and Old American Songs as some of the most rewarding Copland I’ve heard in a long time. Both discs are much-needed additions to the composer’s ever-fascinating canon.

Anthony Burton
BBC Music Magazine, December 2008

Under Marin Alsop’s incisive direction, the Bournemouth musicians perform all three works with just the right blend of power and finesse, and negotiate their sometimes extremely complex rhythms with confidence and precision…this is a corner left bare by recent deletions: there is no other Short Symphony, the First Symphony is available only in a tense, dimly recorded live performance conducted by the composer on Etcetera, and the Dance Symphony in decca and EMI compilations can only be found in occasionally uncertain accounts under Dorati and Bátiz respectively. This disc knocks the socks off that limited competition, and surely ranks as one of the crowning achievements of Alsop’s six immensely successful years on the south coast.

Peter Dickinson
Gramophone, December 2008

Persuasive performances of neglected early works make this an essential CD

There are two attractions here: the only current recording of the Short Symphony and a fine recording of Symphony No 1—at last. It started life as the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, written for Copland’s teacher Nadia Boulanger whose performances launched his career in 1925. Six years later the reworking of the score without organ was first performed but it has never made much headway. Copland’s own live recording with the French National Orchestra in 1971 has dated badly and is only of documentary interest. Alsop and the Bournemouth players make a fine case for this neglected score with many characteristics of mature Copland.

There are also two versions of Copland’s Short Symphony. It was first played in Mexico City under Carlos Chavez in 1943 but the rhythmic difficulties were considered so great that the American premiere had to wait 10 years. Meanwhile, despairing of orchestral performances, Copland made the version for sextet. There are no difficulties now for the BSO…there are odd circumstances about the Dance Symphony too. It was taken from the ballet Grohg—never performed—that Copland wrote during his student years in Paris. In 1992 Oliver Knussen conducted the full version, proved its quality as an outstanding early-20th-century ballet score, and recorded it. In the absence of a full recording of Grohg, the Dance Symphony completes an essential CD.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2008

Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony complete their cycle of Copland’s symphonies, the two discs together offering the best buy of the many versions on the market.Though Copland numbered all three works, only the Third is a symphony in the widely accepted sense of the word, the First being a reworking of an earlier Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, while the Second started out life as his Short Symphony. Into that confused scene comes the Dance Symphony, which is a concert version of music he wrote for the vampire  ballet, Grohg. I particularly love the First, the melancholy opening sounding much like an American version of Vaughan Williams in pastoral mood. Then with a typical Copland shift we move into a rhythmically teasing scherzo that oscillates between shimmering passages and uninhibited brass. The finale is hard-hitting and highly charged. The Second Symphony is just fifteen minutes in length and scored for small orchestra, its rhythmic complexity dissuading conductors from regularly programme the work. Two mercurial movements surround a very sombre central movement, the work is far from easy to shape. The Dance Symphony is coloured to meet the atmosphere of the creepy and gruesome subject, the work eventually breaking into animation with the final Dance of Mockery, a technically demanding showpiece. Steered by their American conductor, the Bournemouth orchestra again proves that it is well attuned to the Copland idiom, the inner detail, on which much of this disc depends, so succinctly captured, the woodwind playing being particularly distinguished. Of course all depends on the recording quality, and the disc certainly outclasses the alternative versions in this aspect.

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