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Aaron Copland
Symphony No. 3 / Billy the Kid (Suite)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
James Judd conducting

Review by Max Westler
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Aaron Copland: Symphony No. 3 / Billy the Kid (Suite)

CD Stock Number: 8.559106

 

  Copland's Third Symphony is at once his most ambitious and his most problematic orchestral work. Written between 1944 and 1946 on a commission from Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Trust, it was, from its first sketches, meant to be the major work friends like Samuel Barber and David Diamond had been pressuring him to compose. Unlike his freewheeling ballet scores, the new work would be cast in the form of a traditional, four movement symphony that would directly address the despair and euphoria of the war years. Almost from the beginning, Copland planned to structure the final movement on a then little known work he had written in 1942 for the Cincinnati Symphony, the "Fanfare for the Common Man." It is interesting to note the alternate titles Copland considered for that work: "For the Day of Victory," "For the Spirit of Democracy." In fact he had long wanted to produce "a patriotic gesture," music that would speak directly to a war-weary nation "in a shared language of hope, conviction, and affirmation." Ambitious in both form and content, the Third would be not only his longest orchestral work (forty minutes plus), but also his "War" symphony.

The question has always been, and remains, does the Symphony fully realize Copland's enormous ambitions for it, or does it strain and eventually founder under that burden? From the first, opinions were sharply divided. After the premiere, Koussevitsky declared it "the greatest American symphony," but there were also naysayers. Younger composers like Arthur Berger and Irving Fine found the work too populist, too blatant, while some prominent critics complained about "grandiloquence hiding sheer emptiness," "a picturesque film score in symphonic form." The ever snippy Virgil Thompson advised Copland "to do it again." Even Leonard Bernstein, who soon became the work's most devoted advocate, was initially cool to it. (He warmed considerably after making an unauthorized cut in the last movement. Talk about chutzpah!) In his autobiography, Copland himself seemed unable to make up his mind about the symphony, calling it "something of an anomaly, standing between my abstract works, and the more accessible ballet and film music."

One thing's certain: if Copland's Third is indeed the great American symphony, it remains a difficult, if not a treacherous work to bring off in performance. Consider, for example, the vastly different approaches of Copland and Bernstein, each of whom recorded the work twice. As an interpreter of his own music, Copland often seemed content to let his music speak for itself. Such "objectivity" could produce interesting results, especially in the early ballet scores: stripped of its folkloric elements, "Billy the Kid" sounds abstract, European; at times, almost like Stravinsky. But in a score that desperately needs shaping, a strong interpretive hand, Copland's restrained approach doesn't work. Especially in his second recording with the New Philharmonia, much of the symphony sounds matter-of-fact, rhythmically slack. In the dramatic episodes, one can too often hear Copland holding back; reining the orchestra in when he should be letting it go. Of course, the one crime you would never accuse Bernstein of is restraint. Even when he spoke of the work, it was always in the most effusive and extravagant terms. "The (Copland Third) symphony has become an American monument, like the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial," he said during one of his Young People's Concerts; and, in both of his recordings, the approach is appropriately "monumental," intensely earnest. Unfortunately this sometimes brings with it a sense of exaggeration. The final movement in particular moves with a heavy tread that makes the music seem ponderous; overwrought, if not exhausting. In the end, neither Copland's restraint nor Bernstein's abandon serves the symphony particularly well, but I prefer them both to the many dutiful, respectful, and ultimately dull recordings that offer themselves as alternatives. Leonard Slatkin, Yoel Levi, Neemi Jarvi, and (most recently) Eiji Oue are all solid (and sometimes imaginative) conductors who have apparently found nothing much to say about this music.

I fear some listeners may have too quickly passed up James Judd's new recording of the Third Symphony when it first appeared last year; after all, what do a British conductor and a New Zealand orchestra have to tell us about this quintessentially American symphony that we don't already know? The answer is, simply everything. To these ears, Judd's is the best performance the work has received on disc since Antal Dorati's pioneering effort with the Minneapolis Orchestra in 1953 (a lively performance and still awaiting reissue on CD). Judd knows that the symphony, though strictly limited in its thematic materials, is in fact a study in startling and often violent contrasts: the plaintive, vulnerable hymn that opens the work will reappear as the anguished subject of the first movement development; then again at the end, in the form of a triumphal march. The skittery, out-of-control (and in Judd's hands, almost menacing) scherzo is followed by a trio full of calm and genuine playfulness. In the third movement, a mood of tranquility and repose is interrupted by a kinetic dance-like episode. In the final movement especially, there are many surprises: the imposing, resolute "fanfare" gives way to giddy rumbas and congas that are in turn followed by a determined march, a sudden shiver of fright; and only then, the affirmative climax. Judd is the first conductor I know to get all these contrasting moods exactly right, and to do so without any loss of impetus. He is true to both the "pastoral" and "martial" aspects of this music, able to voice the despair and the euphoria convincingly and without mannerism. His approach is at once deeply personal and scrupulously honest; and in his hands, the Third Symphony sounds exactly like the major work Copland dreamt of writing when he first started sketching the work 61 years ago.

Better known in Europe than in America, Judd has a reputation for always getting the most out of his players (as witness his remarkable Mahler First with the Florida Philharmonic on Harmonia Mundi), and here he secures alert, passionate, edge of the seat commitment from his new orchestra. In fact, this New Zealand Symphony sounds like an altogether richer ensemble than the orchestra that recorded Samuel Barber's work back in the 80's with the late Andrew Schenck conducting. At least in the Third Symphony, you can often mistake them for a major orchestra playing at full cry.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the coupling; but of course, here the competition is that much stiffer. When it comes to "Billy the Kid," I'm afraid my ears have grown too used to the snappy rhythms of conductors like Dorati, Slatkin, Bernstein, and-most recently -- Micheal Tilson Thomas not to be just a little impatient with Judd's more relaxed, though well characterized, approach. And here too, the orchestra sounds a little under-rehearsed, less involved. Still, this disc is worth getting for the symphony alone, and at Naxos prices, we're talking pocket change. For Pete's sake, they're practically giving it away.

In the past, I have sometimes found the sound on Naxos orchestral recordings a tad dry and airless, but that is not the case here. Overall the sound is detailed and vivid, a first balcony perspective on what turns out to be (in the symphony, at any rate) a thrilling performance. In a perfect world, I would wish for more warmth and definition in the bass, but that's less of a problem in a symphony where so much of the expression takes place in the upper register. Bottom line: you won't be disappointed when you play this disc at earsplitting levels -- though the neighbors, damn them, will probably still complain!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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