Born in Brooklyn in 1900, Aaron Copland certainly qualifies as an American and his music qualifies him as one of America's top classical composers. Audiophiles seem to often add him to their collections with famous showpieces such as Rodeo and Billy the Kid, ballets that contain quite a bit of folk music. Conductors such as Bernstein and Dorati seem to have been fine choices for those pieces. A last minute flash made me want to add either Fiedler or Gould to that list of two, but I'm not positive. Serious music lovers have been attracted to a wide-ranging repertoire of works by Copland, though seldom to his early compositions. His Appalachian Spring ballet and the Third Symphony had been selected as best new American works by the New York Music Critics Circle. Appalachian Spring Suite was also awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in Music. The famous conductor Serge Koussevitzky is quoted as saying, "Copland's Third Symphony is the greatest American symphony - it goes from the heart to the heart".
This new Reference Recording, featuring the 24-bit HDCD (High Definition Compatible Digital) process is quite simply an outstandingly excellent example of recorded audio quality. At this exalted level, one has to wonder if the SACD and DVD-A competition could significantly improve on the resulting sound. The introductory work for this album is the justly famous A Fanfare for the Common Man. Rock fans are familiar with it in arrangements by groups as diverse as the Rolling Stones and Emerson Lake and Palmer. It is often heard in TV and film productions. I find it to be a very memorable score, not to be easily forgotten. At the recent CES in Las Vegas I heard this CD and this particular selection quite often. Arnie Nudell of Genesis was giving his new model 450 a real workout with the tremendous, and I do mean Tremendous, drum whacks on this track. You'll probably not hear better bass (clearer, more detailed and solid) than that combination - Genesis 450 fed by RR-93CD. The scoring builds to the use of four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and a tuba. As is typical, even in this superb recording, it sounds as if the trumpets are more emphasized than the trombones and horns. Hopefully there will be a time when I find out why I feel that way. I'm going to guess that in the past I heard a performance that used an augmented horn section that simply sticks in my memory. Consider this track as a bonus or an encore for this album as there is almost seventy more minutes on this disc. Comparison with a 1977 English Decca stereo LP [# SPA 525] truly surprised me.
The drum whacks on this old LP are not identical to RR's CD but are equally tremendous! The differences are such as would happen with slightly different microphone placement (both seem to be close placement) or more likely simply the acoustics of a different recording location. Here we have the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta. I remember that many if not most recordings from this era were equally good on our London label, search for it under Gershwin featuring Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris. Maybe we've not progressed as far as we like to think with digital even with one of its strengths, bass response. In my case the very extended bass response (with a really good tonearm) of Grado's The Reference pickup cartridge, compared to most moving coil models, combined with Herron's truly outstanding phono step up amp (check out our review in the archives section of this magazine) should be given most of the credit for that result.
Next come the beautiful and often sublimely relaxed melodies of Copland's suite from Appalachian Spring. This ballet music is subtitled Ballet for Martha (Graham) by the composer. The original scoring of this ballet, for various reasons, was for only thirteen instruments. Listeners familiar only with Copland's large-scale works such as Billy the Kid and Rodeo ballets may be in for quite a surprise here. In this lovely piece there are many hints of American folk music but only one folk tune, a hymn with a set of variations. Actually, not all is quiet melodies; there is much variety in this selection and it is not atonal. Call it contemporary romantic. I have run out of personal references including books and recording liner notes. Editor Steve has not yet answered my request for additional funds for further research into the subject and all my sources are not in agreement (at least not clearly in agreement) or have significant voids in what I'm going to try to tell you faithful readers. If anyone out there in our vast or even our half vast readership knows for certain, please let me know.
Here goes: Appalachian Spring, as originally written, was scored for thirteen instruments. It was composed for Martha Graham of ballet fame and she had chosen the title. Premiere was in October 1944. In the spring of 1945 Copland arranged most of the score into a suite for large orchestra leaving out approximately eight minutes of the complete score as originally written. Starting this possible controversy, I'm calling this suite #1-as is common for suites there is less music than contained in the original composition, only about eight minutes less in this case-but remember that this suite was scored for a large orchestra, not the thirteen instruments of the original composition. That's not as common. This suite is what won the Pulitzer Prize! To quote Aaron Copland from an interview with Phillip Ramey, "You know, Appalachian Spring took me about a year to finish and it was originally scored for only thirteen players. I remember thinking how crazy it was to spend all that time because I knew how short-lived most ballets and their scores are. But the Suite for symphony orchestra that I derived from Appalachian Spring was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1945 and took on a life of its own."
The orchestral suite includes eight sections with no interruption. I am at this point inserting a quote from Reference Recordings liner notes on page 5 for the CD under review here, "In later years Copland also prepared a fuller concert suite for full orchestra (which I'll call suite #2), the complete ballet for full orchestra, a suite for the original thirteen instruments (which I'll call suite #3), and other arrangements of the music." This might help explain the seemingly contradictory information I've obtained elsewhere. Which suite version is on this recording - I know not, but will try to find out and will insert before "we go to press". As far as I was able to ascertain it is Copeland's original Suite, the one for full orchestra that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. If you see a performance or recording of Copeland's Appalachian Spring Suite subtitled as the "original" version for thirteen instruments, I've had to conclude that is incorrect, no matter how commonly named as such! * See addendum at end of this review by Tam Henderson, President of Reference Recordings.
I did not find other sources that mentioned three different suites! But, remember there are at least two other versions of this music you're likely to encounter. They are simply the entire ballet score performed by either thirteen instrumentalists or by a full symphony orchestra!
I fired up my old Copland conducts Copland LP [Columbia M30649 in stereo] for comparison (timing listed as 24:38). I was surprised at how well this old recording sounded; it was simply marred by being rather bright sounding. Fortunately Herron's amplification is so clean that nothing is added to further diminish listening pleasure. Conducting his own music, Copland seemed to shine by making the slower sections of the Appalachian Spring Suite very melodic. He was definitely letting the hints of American folk music shine through. On Reference Recordings older LP RR-22 conducted by Keith Clark, the timing is listed as 26:45.
Here, Appalachian Spring Suite is listed as the "Original Version for Thirteen Instruments". As mentioned above, I question exactly what that means because of the inclusion of the word "Original." The first or original suite was for full orchestra and that was what won the Pulitzer Prize. I would use first and original to mean the same thing and the original version (the first suite) was for full orchestra, not just thirteen instruments as per liner notes for RR-93CD. This is a particularly beautiful recording, with a tremendous sense of a very reverberant atmosphere such as in a mosque or large church. Jan Mancuso of RR informed me that it was the Santa Ana High School auditorium, a favorite recording venue for the company.
Listen to it carefully before proclaiming digital superior to analogue. Here Keith Clark, while superior to Copland's conducting in the more dynamic sections, loses out melodically in the quieter sections. But, what a recording! In the new recording (timing listed as 25:09) featuring Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra the conductor seems to pretty much tread an approach that results in much of (if not completely) the best of Copland and Clark. Very well done overall is my conclusion. I can't imagine any listener being seriously disappointed. Add the impressively low distortion sonics that allows the very fabric of the orchestra as well as the details in various sections to be intimately revealed and RR deserves to have another winner on their hands. Don't wait around hoping that in a year or two someone will somehow offer even better sonics with a new version, which might have a less satisfying performance!
The last work on this fine CD is Copland's Third Symphony. Most musicologists agree that Copland's Third and Roy Harris' Third are America's greatest examples of the symphonic genre. I wouldn't dream of disagreeing, but was not able to find any surviving example of Copland's in my LP collection. I am certain both Copland and Bernstein had recorded it, perhaps more than once each. In Great Britain, Appalachian Spring's popularity resulted in a continuing ratio of approximately six recorded performances of it, to each of his Third Symphony. For the most part American compositions (classical pieces) have a tough time being appreciated in other countries. Tis a pity. If you're a symphony lover I say, "buy this recording of this outstanding symphony".
Chances are you will learn to both like and appreciate it very quickly. It belongs in your collection. Quieter sections are very melodic or poetic and the recording of them at least as revealingly captivating as in the preceding Appalachian Spring Suite. The fourth movement is a sonic knockout and I find it audibly even more impressive than the Fanfare for the Common Man, parts of which are to be found therein! In fact some of the "Fanfare segments" seem a bit fuller/richer than the Fanfare itself as if here there's an extra horn and/or trombone.
Smaller companies, such as Reference Recordings, have not only provided music lovers with much of the best that technology has had to offer in the past decade or two. They have helped to force the "big boys" to try harder and give us better recordings. Remember, just a few years ago a newly released remastered recording by one of the majors was usually brighter, leaner and less satisfying than the original recording. I can guess that RR cannot afford to spend a small fortune each month trying the latest technology which may or may not be finally accepted by the majors and which may or may not work with your present player. In the meantime, I say to all you music lovers, "buy these outstanding releases so that the producing companies can stay in business through these tough changing technological times". If you don't, you may find very few choices in the future and have only yourself to blame. Johnny Carson has been quoted as saying "I know a man who gave up smoking, drinking, sex and rich food. He was healthy right up to the time he killed himself". I say he should have added, "Enjoying the Music".
Dear Dr. Lozier:
Karl sez: That would seem to be extremely logical and would make complete sense to me if it were not for the mention of THREE suites in the liner notes for RR-93CD and reference to Suite ORIGINAL version for thirteen instruments on RR-22. The Suite contains most of the music, except an 8-minute stretch near the end, just before "Simple Gifts" begins. The original instrumentation was for a pit band of 13 instruments. RR recorded the Suite in this instrumentation on RR-22. Copland himself recorded the Complete Ballet (with the extra 8 minutes) in the orchestral arrangement for BMG.
So there are NOT four suites. There is ONE suite in two versions, and the Complete Ballet in two versions. Many thanks for urging your readers to support small, struggling labels. Please let us know if we can be of further use.
Karl sez: Many thanks to you and feel free to add any other comments as you see fit. I can easily guess what the underlying source of the misunderstanding probably is and it is certainly not your fault. To our readers, many years ago Tam Henderson was one of the most respected reviewers in the business and wrote for the Absolute Sound magazine. We're fortunate to have him as head of the company that produces many of the very best recorded listening sources currently available. Obviously he is constantly reviewing his company's products to keep the quality at such a high level.
"Howard Pollack wrote a recent biography of Copland which is highly regarded. I sent an email to Mr. Pollack asking for clarification and his response is below".
"Tam, it IS very confusing, but there are actually more than four versions of Appalachian Spring, including a near-complete version for orchestra intended for concert performance that's considerably longer than the classic suite. I discuss all this at some length in a note for Boosey and Hawkes' forthcoming edition of the complete, original ballet for 13 instruments. Hope this helps."
In closing Karl sez, "I also wanted to find out when this "forgotten" fuller suite, which I dubbed suite#2,was scored and why. Did Copland feel a need for yet another suite or was he commissioned to do it? When, if ever, was it performed (or recorded) and by whom?
Below is information regarding the book mentioned in the above article: