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Charles Ives/Henry Brant: A Concord Symphony
Aaron Copland: Organ Symphony
Paul Jacobs, organ (in the Copland); Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony 
Review By Joe Milicia

  Quite 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 sound.

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.

 

 

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