John Wilson conducts Copland Orchestral Works 4 – Symphony 3, Connotations [BBC Philharmonic; Chandos]

4 of 5 stars

Symphony No.3
Letter from Home
Down a Country Lane

BBC Philharmonic
John Wilson

Recorded 25 & 26 March 2018 at MediaCityUK, Salford, Manchester, England

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: November 2018
Duration: 66 minutes



Just when we think we know what to expect from John Wilson, his conducting of Porgy and Bess at ENO (October-November just gone) proved long-breathed rather than insistently authentic, the score quite heavily cut. In the latest instalment of his Copland sequence for Chandos, the mix is different again. Bernstein-inspired edits in the main works are opened out, the music moving with fluidity at the expense of gravitas. While the sound is essentially opulent and relaxed, at least after the leaner, meaner sonorities once associated with this repertoire, my system sometimes reproduced the timpani and bass drum with a certain ‘hollowness’ of tone, distracting in the Finale of the Symphony. One other modest reservation: Mervyn Cooke’s booklet note discusses the individual works insightfully yet in an order neither chronological nor in line with their sequencing on the disc.

It might be argued that Wilson’s reading of the Third lacks personality, fairer perhaps to say that, without the extraordinary rhetorical heft of Bernstein’s New York recordings, it becomes a rather different kind of piece. Although the wartime symphonies of Soviet allies are still there in the background, the score is brought closer to the derided pastoralism of Vaughan Williams. Leonard Slatkin, who also restores the twelve-bar cut in the Finale (other minor alterations failed to register with the present writer), takes a similar view with his Detroit remake of 2015 (Naxos). His broader pacing and fuller-sounding brass may or may not better convey the specificity of what one critic called “the placid beauty of America at peace.” Wilson’s second movement is unarguably defter, eminently successful on its own terms. Just don’t expect granitic weight.

Slatkin enjoys a price advantage but no surround-sound encoding and a less original coupling in the Latin American Sketches. Wilson presents three pieces that rarely appear on concert programmes. The big offering is Connotations, commissioned by Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic for the televised gala which in September 1962 launched the orchestra’s sadly unsatisfactory new home at Lincoln Center. The music, which seems to make occasional reference to Bernstein’s own, is nonetheless in the senior composer’s most uncompromising vein, famously nonplussing the celebrities in attendance, Jackie Kennedy, then First Lady, managing a flustered “Oh, Mr Copland!” when they met backstage. As with Birtwistle’s Panic, at the Last Night of the Proms, closer to our own time, there were letters condemning the “outrage”. (Teenager Christopher Rouse wrote approvingly to the composer!) The BBC Philharmonic’s performance feels crisp and committed if without the oomph imparted by those original performers – Bernstein’s usual tactic in trying to communicate with an unresponsive public. Pierre Boulez had a no doubt subtler crack at the score in 1973 – is there a tape?

The remaining items? Letter from Home was originally composed in 1944 for the bandleader Paul Whiteman and subsequently twice revised. It is the final chamber-sized version of 1962 that is recorded here. Down a Country Lane began life as a piano piece and is heard in a 1964 transmogrification intended for school and youth orchestras. Intriguingly, Cooke tells us it was given first in London’s Royal Festival Hall by the London Junior Orchestra under Ernest Read; an unpretentious end to this release. But why couldn’t the label decide between “Copland: Orchestral Works Volume 4” and “Copland: Symphonies Volume 3”? No matter. This is surely one of the more valuable orchestral series of recent years.

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