Copland and Cage

Sextet for clarinet, piano and string quartet
Nonet for strings (1960)
Piano Sonata (1939-41)
Night Thoughts (Homage to Ives)
Piano Quartet (1950)
Danzon Cubano

London Sinfonietta
Paul Crossley (Piano)

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth & Duncan Hadfield

Reviewed: 3 December, 2000
Venue: Queen elizabeth hall, London


The London Sinfonietta’s centenary salute to Aaron Copland seemed to be the last in a heady series held in London’s concert halls remembering this much-admired and much-loved figure. Thankfully these celebrations have given us chances not just to catch up on old favourites but to renew all-too-rare acquaintance and, in some cases, as with this concert, make discoveries. A fitting tribute to a great composer: having listened to a huge amount of Copland in the last six months or so, I am now even more convinced than before that it is no exaggeration to refer to Copland in this way.

The first work in the concert is an undoubted masterpiece, the Sextet for clarinet, piano and string quartet, an arrangement Copland made, in 1937, of his earlier Short Symphony of 1931-33. (Due to the original’s considerable difficulties it was not heard in the US until 1957!) The sextet version still makes considerable demands on six musicians in terms of ensemble playing – Copland’s typically exposed lines and constantly changing time signatures cruelly highlighting anything but the most accomplished playing. When played with the panache of these performers it is an irresistible combination of vitality and energy; but curiously it is the bittersweet pastoral episode in the middle, which, as Bayan Northcott pointed out in his excellent programme notes, would not sound out of place in Appalachian Spring, so beautifully played here by clarinettist Michael Collins, which sticks most in the memory.

The Nonet for strings of 1960 is a major discovery – I have certainly never heard a concert performance in this country. Although belonging to the period of Connotations (1962) and Inscape (1967) it is not a serial work and has a luminosity and ecstatic quality that sometimes reminds one of the Tippett of the Corelli Fantasia. Its beautifully ’heard’ part-writing is indeed not a million miles away from the Purcell Fantazias for Viol Consort that were such an inspiration to the slightly younger English composer. In short, Nonet is quite unlike anything else in Copland’s output before or after – if only he had been tempted to write a work for full string orchestra. [Copland sanctioned the Nonet for performance by string orchestra – Music Editor.] The haunting lullaby that closes the work stayed with me long after the concert – not least because of this excellent performance directed by Oliver Knussen.

Paul Crossley took to the stage to play two contrasting piano works from the middle and end of Copland’s composing career. The Sonata of 1939-41 takes us back to more familiar sparse textures, clashing bell-like sounds and vigorous counterpoint. What is so remarkable about this piece, and indeed so much Copland, is the absolute rightness of every note – nothing is wasted, there’s no neo-romantic excess here; the ending, restrained, dignified, so beautifully played by Paul Crossley, is magical and Copland at his most inspired. Night Thoughts (Homage to Ives) was written as a test-piece for the 1973 Van Cliburn Competition – Copland’s last substantial work is sadly not of the same level. Though bravely by-passing the chance to write the finger-torturing piece that one might expect for such an occasion, this eight-minute study in chords, touch and balance, was not even brought to life in Paul Crossley’s poetic performance.

The final part of the concert again brought two very different works and sadly a lowering in what up to now had been a very high standard of performance. The Piano Quartet (1950) was probably the most uncompromising work of the afternoon – the hair-raising, very fast, at times very quiet scherzo quite clearly needed more rehearsal, though the elegiac calm of the slow final movement was effectively handled. Once again this is a major statement in a medium not exactly bursting with repertoire; it’s a piece that does not let its secrets out easily, but undoubtedly repays further investigation. It is unfortunate that such an admirable venture had to end on such a forgettable and indeed fairly disgraceful performance of Danzon Cubano – this work, after some of the profound complexities of the chamber music, should have sent the audience out on a high note; however, if John Constable and John Alley were not sight-reading, it was a close run thing. Not only was this entertaining piece not together, it was singularly lacking in anything approaching dance-like qualities. One final thing – why was such an otherwise excellent concert not broadcast?

David Wordsworth

…and Cage

The enigmatic figure of John Cage: now more than eight years after his death, just how are we meant to assess this extraordinary American proselytiser of and for the avant-garde? The conservative view might be that Cage was never a ’real’ composer, he was merely an instigator of happenings – the cranky impresario who, with an agenda of ’staging’ Zen philosophy and aleatoric I-Ching-dominated chance procedures, probably couldn’t differentiate a major chord from a minor one, and, even if he could, cared little for the discrepancy. Yet this intriguing London Sinfonietta concert of works from different phases of Cage’s long career obviously set out with the intention of demonstrating that Cage could compose … sort of. An interesting parallel exists in this respect between Cage and another reactionary prophet of Modernist mayhem, the German performance artist Joseph Beuys. It may be very interesting to cover a piano in felt, leave a heap of animal fat to rot away in the corner of a gallery, or cover one’s face in gold paint and cradle a dead hare for 24 hours whilst reciting a mantra, but could Beuys actually draw? A fascinating Royal Academy exhibition a couple of years ago proved that he certainly could – after a fashion – or, maybe more appositely, after the fashion in which he wanted to. In my opinion, Cage’s stance (if it is one) is by no means dissimilar.

Taught briefly by Schoenberg in the 1930s, the young Cage it seems had little time for serialist craftsmanship. By 1939, the date of his First Construction (in Metal) – the first work on the Sinfonietta’s programme – Cage was already far more interested in having six players bash out quasi-tribal rhythmic patterns on an exotic array of suspended metal sheets, gongs and bells, alongside more conventional though still untuned percussion. Schoenberg and Cage had met in the State where the latter was born – California; whilst the Austrian master looked-back across the breadth of America and the Atlantic, Cage’s evident field of vision here is the Pacific, the gamelan, its undiscovered pockets of paganism, its isolated islands of sonority. Immaculately prepared and fastidiously executed, as for anything the Sinfonietta’s percussive Principal James Holland and his colleagues turn their attention to, the First Construction certainly emerged structured under Paul Zukovsky’s clear direction.

By the time, 1951, of Cage’s choreographic score for Merce Cunningham, 16 Dances, most of the sheet metal is still in place, although only four percussionists are required now, and joined by an instrumental quintet. The ever-enterprising Cage perhaps sets out to demonstrate he is a master of variation, for throughout this 50-minute opus he employs a grid of only 64 fixed-sounds and -figures, whilst at the same time attempting to evoke a series of specific moods, as well as allude to (or parody) a number of set musical genres such as the Tango and the Blues.

How does he do it? Well, rather repetitively some might say, and with more than the occasional recourse to cliché. Yet whilst the creation as a whole slightly outstays its welcome (the same might be said of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, especially without its ballet!), 16 Dances emerged as a cogent and rewarding Cagean creation, especially when as tautly, energetically and playfully conducted as here by Paul Zukovsky.

Once again the Sinfonietta’s musicianship was exemplary, as was its ensemble in a precarious ’balancing act’ … with lots of suspended metal floating around! To my mind, only the concert’s middle work truly disappointed, the 30-minute Ten, dating from 1991, the composer’s penultimate year. Those prepared to give Cage his due (of which I am one) might eagerly anticipate a transcendental late opus – Beethoven Quartet, Stravinsky Requiem Canticles or Mozart Clarinet Concerto, alas, Ten is not. Instead old John has run out of steam, or at least seems to be on auto-pilot, with a tedious series of single, detached tones, admittedly sometimes microtonally inflected, but stagnant nevertheless. It might be charitable to say the Sinfonietta’s decet made a case for it, but there didn’t seem to be much of a case to make.

Summing up this Sinfonietta Copland and Cage day in The Sunday Times, Paul Driver wrote: “It is Copland, I believe, not Cage, who composed in the American grain, and who created the possibility of an American musical vernacular … “. A valid view, but was Cage’s agenda ever to create an American musical vernacular in the first place? And what about Ives – hadn’t he already done that before Cage and Copland were born?

To set Copland alongside Cage had its value – all that was needed was the introduction of the middleman, and a third C, Elliott Carter.

Duncan Hadfield

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