possibly there has never been a review or article focusing on Aaron Copland's
Symphony for Organ and Orchestra that has failed to quote the conductor Walter
Damrosch's remark from the podium after the work's 1925 premiere (and this
review will be no exception): "Ladies and gentlemen, I am sure you will agree
that if a gifted young man can write a symphony like this at 25, within five
years he will be ready to commit murder." Though meant to be humorous, the
remark has sometimes been taken as an outrageous insult, and perhaps on past
occasions as an excuse for conservative listeners to stick their fingers in
their ears. Certainly the work has its raucous moments — the galumphing dance
outbursts of the Scherzo, the powerful chords of the Finale's climaxes. But on
the CD at hand, the far more dissonant and overall modernistic work is an
orchestration of a piano sonata first published in 1920. Michael Tilson Thomas,
a longtime champion of both Charles Ives and Copland's thornier works, offers
a fascinating pairing on the San Francisco Symphony's home label, in superb
Ives' Second Piano Sonata, the "Concord," is one of his most distinctive and masterful works. It's a set of portraits of 19th-Century Transcendentalists, its four movements labeled "Emerson," "Hawthorne," "The Alcotts," and "Thoreau." But it's also a true sonata rather than a suite, with its interwoven musical themes (one being the four-note opening of Beethoven's Fifth) and the structure of a complexly dramatic opening movement, grand scherzo (with some of Ives' marching band effects), gently tuneful interlude, and otherworldly finale. It's also a truly pianistic work, aware at all times of the distinctive colors a piano can produce, even when Ives calls for a board to be placed over some of the keys to create tone clusters (in "Hawthorne"), and even though there is a flute part for certain bars of "Thoreau," to suggest music drifting across Walden Pond. (An optional viola could appear briefly in "Emerson" as well.) Still, just as certain musicians have been inspired to orchestrate Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata and Debussy's Preludes, so the Canadian composer Henry Brant was inspired to create a "Concord Symphony," working on it periodically from 1958 to 1994 — a remarkable 36-year span.
The first thing to say about Brant's
orchestration is that he does not attempt to replicate an Ivesian orchestral
sound as could be done by studying, perhaps, Three Places in New England
and the Fourth Sympony. According to a quote from Brant in the CD booklet, his
goal was "rather to create a symphonic idiom which would ride in the orchestra
with athletic surefootedness and present Ives' astounding music in clear,
vivid and intense sonorities." Brant does this to a large extent by opting for
massed groupings of brass, woodwind and string sonorities: nothing like the more
impressionistic blur of Ives' own orchestral music. There also seems little
effort to capture the "Americana" flavor of Ives' marching bands and hymn
sing-alongs to be found in the "Hawthorne" and "Alcott" movements. I
particularly missed the "home-y" sounds of a parlor piano in "The Alcotts."
But just as Arnold Schoenberg created a great original work in his orchestration
of Brahms' First Piano Quartet, Brant creates a fascinating symphonic
experience in his very individualistic take on the Concord Sonata. A close
consideration of his musical choices on every page would require an article many
times the length of this review.
I have not heard the 2007 recording made by
Dennis Russell Davies and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Volume 7 of a Henry
Brant series on the Innova label), but Tilson Thomas and his orchestra seem
utterly committed to the piece: brilliant and alert in every bar, "surefooted" indeed. The engineers have done a phenomenal job in capturing
the power of the many blazing brass passages as well as the delicacy of woodwind
and strings in gentler moments.
And we are given the bonus of Copland's three-movement Organ Symphony, a work too infrequently encountered in the concert hall or on disc. An early work, which Copland also arranged for organ-less orchestra in 1928, calling it his Symphony No. 1, it was written for his celebrated Parisian tutor, Nadia Boulanger, and premiered with the New York Symphony. Its somber Prelude (Andante) leads to a Scherzo (Allegro molto) that opens in a pastoral manner, becomes a sort of perpetual-motion machine, then turns moody and strident in turn. The Finale (starting Lento but becoming somewhat faster) seems predominantly tragic in mood. The organ is woven into the sound fabric, rather than a soloist in the manner of Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani.
The longtime performance of choice has been Leonard Bernstein's with the New York Philharmonic and E. Power Biggs, originally on a Columbia LP paired with Bernstein's Violin Serenade (with Isaac Stern) and later in Sony's Bernstein Century CD series paired with Copland's more popular Third Symphony. I listened to the CD edition and found the sound remarkably good — clear and undistorted — and the performance still exciting. But Tilson Thomas and Paul Jacobs have been accorded quite sensational sound, with even the most thunderous organ passages in good balance with the rest of the orchestra, and their performance is equally committed. It is also notably slower in the first and last movements, as if savoring the more lyrical moments and drawing out the darker moods; MTT's performance time is 27 minutes vs. Bernstein's 24 and a half.
Only the CD booklet is a disappointment, if one
wants in-depth commentary on the works, especially the Ives/Brant. The
biographical entry on the SFSO is considerably longer than the Ives/Brant
article, but then, it's an in-house production after all.