John Wilson has an unusual back catalogue, distinguished by the presence of creative voices long deemed unfashionable. On the Dutton Vocalion label these include Eric Coates, Anthony Collins, Robert Farnon, Edward German and others. Later, most famously for EMI and latterly Warner, the focus shifts to Hollywood and Broadway for a slew of ‘authentic’ recreations characterized by driven tempos, brilliant solos, vibrato-rich string tone and rather dry studio sonics. His latest project is something else again, an Aaron Copland sequence for Chandos that sounds opulent and relaxed, at least after the leaner, meaner sonorities once associated with this repertoire on CBS LPs.
Most British critics expressed themselves delighted with the diatonic ‘greatest hits’ selection that made up Copland Orchestral Works 1 (CHSA 5164). But then their predecessors tended to over-praise the ‘objectivity’ of Copland himself as conductor, disdaining the vastly superior snap and point of Leonard Bernstein. In the main works Wilson is similarly outclassed – who wouldn’t be? – and the appeal of his lacklustre Fanfare for the Common Man is purely sonic. That said, at least one item, the Suite from Billy the Kid, implies a profounder affection for the idiom. And the good news is that Copland Orchestral Works 2 feels more consistently inspired throughout. A pity though that the spine prefers the potentially confusing “Copland: Symphonies, Vol. 1”.
Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924) is the opus that gave rise to conductor Walter Damrosch’s oft-quoted suggestion that if Copland could write a piece like this aged 23, “within five years he will be ready to commit murder!”. It isn’t an easy work to bring off: its climaxes always feel overstuffed and it’s hard not to suspect that the young composer intended a spikier effect than can be realistically achieved by the forces he chose. It was subsequently re-scored more conventionally as Symphony No.1 (1928). That being the case, the present performance is something of a triumph. Although Jonathan Scott is prominently placed, much unsuspected orchestral detail is somehow brought to light even as we appear to be sat in a real hall. It helps that not every trace of the mechanism of the Marcussen & Søn instrument has been expunged. The comparably stunning account from Paul Jacobs with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony is paired less helpfully with Ives’s Concord Symphony [sic] as arranged by Henry Brant (SFS Media SFS0038).
The rest of this Chandos programme duplicates a more venerable offering from the same orchestra and conductor, taking in the Piano Concerto with Garrick Ohlsson (RCA 09026-68541-2). Twenty years on, Aaron Copland: The Modernist has come to sound a little thin on top, lacking the body and weight of its SACD-encoded rival. More unexpected is the fact that the Manchester performances are just as good or very nearly so. Perhaps the magnificent Orchestral Variations, a 1957 revamp of 1930’s Piano Variations whose original, Louisville recording (First Edition FECD – 0001) is best described as well-intentioned, was put over with greater clout by MTT and the LSO in their June 2013 concert performance in London’s Barbican Hall. On disc, honours are more equally divided and Wilson does not downplay the rhetoric. Why the BBC Philharmonic should be so much more energised this time round is difficult to say but perhaps there was more time for rehearsal. Neither the Short Symphony (1931-3), rhythmically even trickier than you’d expect, nor the steely Symphonic Ode (1927-9, revised 1955) play themselves. The Ode goes particularly well, its closing pages proceeding noisily onwards and upwards, an urban variant of Respighi’s implacable Pines.
Let’s hope this ongoing survey helps rehabilitate an unfairly neglected body of work. For organ buffs the copious booklet notes take in a full specification of the pipe organ.