Aaron Copland’s music has never been exactly in short supply--the list under his name in the current Opus (nee Schwann) runs almost five columns, after all. But it is a fairly selective supply, based largely on the popular ballet scores and the evergreen rhetorical standards such as the coeval “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Lincoln Portrait.”
The essential Copland collection probably begins with the composer’s own recordings, mostly made in the 1970s for CBS (now Sony Classical). Though he began late, the final decades of his active life actually held more conducting than composing, with his last concert as recent as 1983.
“Conducting is fun,” Copland said. “Obviously, I don’t stand up there and conduct with the authority of the greatest conductors, but I certainly know my own music well.”
That he did. Considering only recordings that have made it to CD reissue, you can start at the top with three Copland takes on his groundbreaking “Appalachian Spring"--the original chamber orchestra version with a Columbia house band (plus “Billy the Kid” and “Lincoln Portrait,” with Henry Fonda the speaker, MK-42431), and the suite with the London Symphony (matched with “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Rodeo,” MK-42430) or the Boston Symphony (with “Billy the Kid” and “Tender Land” excerpts on RCA’s 6802-2-RG).
The chamber orchestra original is the current version of choice, with three new releases reviewed in Calendar last Sunday, the day Copland died. Any of the composer’s own recordings, though, well represent the “popular” Copland. Combine them with his New Philharmonia Orchestra recording of “El Salon Mexico,” “Danzon Cubano,” “The Red Pony” and “Our Town” suites and the “Three Latin American Sketches” (MK-42429) and you certainly don’t need the “Greatest Hits” disc (MLK-39443).
Equally vivid and even more dynamic versions are available from Leonard Bernstein, the other recently fallen hero of American music. Repertory couplings would probably govern your choices here, with his New York Philharmonic disc of the “Appalachian Spring,” “Billy the Kid” and “Rodeo” suites, plus the “Fanfare for the Common Man” (CBS-Sony MK-42265) covering the standard bases.
Copland was also a pianist, of course, and from beginning to end he composed some of his most difficult and personal music for the instrument. The only currently listed relic of Copland the pianist, alas, is a lone disc from the 1940s, containing the Piano Variations, the Four Piano Blues, and the two-piano version of “Danzon Cubano,” with Leo Smit (New World 277 (LP only)). CBS recordings awaiting reissue include Copland in some of his chamber music and songs, and the Piano Concerto with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.
A significant experience of the solo piano repertory ranging from 1922-72, however, is available from Charles Fierro. His program features the Passacaglia, Variations, Fantasy and “Night Thoughts (Homage to Ives)” (Delos DCD-1013).
Some of Copland’s most characteristic chamber music was released earlier this year on a new disc from Cabrillo Music Festival forces, headed by violinist Romuald Tecco and Dennis Russell Davies on piano. Their program includes the Violin Sonata, the Piano Quartet and “Vitebsk: Study on a Jewish Theme” (MusicMasters MMD-60220).
Even the “difficult” Copland of the serial years sounds utterly idiosyncratic, though it has been little adopted by performers--hardly surprising given their reluctance to adventure beyond the inevitable ballets and patriotic favorites.
Why the opera “The Tender Land” has remained known only in excerpts is answerable (and only partly) by the inwardness of the drama, not the accessibility and sweep of the music. The complete recording led by Philip Brunelle for Virgin Classics (VCD 7 91113-2) was much exclaimed over earlier this year, and bland as the performances may seem on repeated listenings, consider the alternatives . . . that’s right, zip.
Just a few years ago, the monumental Third Symphony also seemed frozen in oblivion. Lately though, it has come in from the cold, and five versions are now available. These begin with Copland’s own London Symphony recording, paired with “Billy the Kid” (Philips, 422307-2 PM). The others include a powerfully cool account from Yoel Levi and the Atlanta Symphony (Telarc, CD-80201, paired with the early, jazzy “Music for the Theatre”) contrasting with the brightly colored, extrovert effort by Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (partnered by “Quiet City” on Deutsche Grammophon, 419170-2 GH).
The Copland CBS performances were supposed to have been reissued on CD in time for his 90th birthday on Nov. 14. The project has fallen behind, but a three-CD set due in January promises many additions to the CD repertory, including Copland’s performance of the Third Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Other performances new to CD in the collection are “An Outdoor Overture,” “John Henry” and “Letter From Home” (all with the London Symphony); “Music for Movies,” the five-movement suite drawn from the “Our Town,” “The City” and “Of Mice and Men” scores (with the New Philharmonia Orchestra); and “Las Agachadas” (with the New England Conservatory Chorus).
By next summer “The Copland Collection” project will have brought out the rest of the major orchestral works, including the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (E. Power Biggs/Bernstein/New York Philharmonic); the Piano Concerto noted above; the “Symphonic Ode,” “Dance Symphony,” “Short Symphony,” “Statements,” and “Dance Panels” (all Copland leading the London Symphony); and the rigorous 1960s “Connotations” and “Inscape” (Bernstein/New York Philharmonic).