A Symphony: New England Holidays – II: Decoration Day
Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra (with harp and piano)
Karl Leister (clarinet)
Recorded by Deutschlandradio Kultur on 30 September 1970 in the Philharmonie, Berlin
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: February 2018
CD No: TESTAMENT SBT 1516
Duration: 77 minutes
Something from the respective scrapbooks of Aaron Copland and the Berlin Philharmonic, a rare meeting, and possibly the only time they did. This Philharmonie concert opens in exuberant style, Elliott Carter’s Holiday Overture (1944), sinewy, lyrical and witty music that does not anticipate his later (just as gratifying) style, although the composer’s 1961 revision may account for the rather grinding, metre-changing coda; that said, rhythmic and contrapuntal complexities abound in music that remains festive, and it’s good to hear Copland conducting a score by a slightly younger colleague and, I imagine, a friend. The Berlin Philharmonic is in virtuoso form and the performance has a burning spirit of independence. As does Charles Ives’s ‘Decoration Day’, from melancholy reminiscences (a haunting melody on cor anglais) to uproarious marching band via shadows and glows, one senses Copland’s deep appreciation of, this time, a senior figure in American music. I suspect the gentle “bravo” that is heard at the end is from Copland himself, it’s certainly with an American accent and close to the microphones.
In his own music Copland directs authoritative accounts. The Clarinet Concerto (written for Benny Goodman) is played lovingly by Karl Leister (born 1937, a long-time member of the Philharmoniker, thirty-four years, appointed by Karajan in 1959), the gorgeous if bittersweet first movement sending shivers down the spine, and if Leister is a little shrill in fortes this has more to with microphone placing than anything intrinsic to the player. He deals brilliantly with the pivotal cadenza and the jazzy and playful second movement has great élan (there are few grunts of encouragement from the composer) although the strings, piano (Horst Göbel) and harp (Fritz Helmis) can be a little variable in clarity. Testament’s booklet reproduces Copland’s thankful words to Leister that he wrote on the soloist’s copy.
The epic Third Symphony (composed for Koussevitzky and Boston, a “holy trinity” Third alongside those by Roy Harris and William Schuman) is valuable as a document, although Copland made two commercial recordings, both in London, and there is the odd time when the playing betrays unfamiliarity with the music, or just how tricky it is to negotiate (the trumpet-writing in the Scherzo and the Mahler Ten-like high-lying strings in the slow movement, for examples, and in the latter a few bars of flute suggests that James Galway was on duty that night, appointed 1969). But clearly the Berliners are doing their focussed best for a distinguished guest, who doesn’t play-down the work’s bombast (maybe patriotic fervour is a better description) but there is much that is pastoral and stirring, and not just the interpolated Fanfare for the Common Man, for the close is roof-raising.