COPLAND: Symphony No. 3. Suite from Appalachian Spring. Fanfare for the Common Man.
Minnesota Orch/Eiji Oue,cond.

Reference Recordings RR-93  [F] [DDD] TT:72:22

From Al Hirschfield's "3-Nina" caricature of the composer on the cover to "Professor" Johnson's signature sound, this is a class act on behalf of the current Copland centenary (1900-2000), with the addition of annotation by his most recent biographer, Howard Pollack. If this is neither the first nor likely to be the last commemoration despite doldrums in the classical-discbiz, it demonstrates How To Do The Job, despite a couple of caveats I feel the obligation to note.

It begins with a system-testing version of the 1942 Fanfare that Copland reused four years later in the finale of his Third Symphony. I've never heard it sound grander, or (paradoxically) more threatening -- to this short piece's advantage -- certainly not at the premiere nearly 60 years ago in Cincinnati. The symphony gets a reading as different from both of Leonard Bernstein's with the New York Phil (their later one for DG is overpoweringly blowzy) as those are from Leonard Slatkin's admirably chaste approach on RCA/BMG, or Joel Levi's prosaic deposition on Telarc with the Atlanta Symphony. Oue makes the music sound French as well as "American" (and why not, given Copland's  indelible tuition with Nadia Boulanger in the 1920s?). If he can't make the work sound more coherent than his colleagues, let's face it: Symphony No. 3 is a discursive, overblown piece by a composer whose best work was behind him, herniated from reaching too far too strenuously. OK; so I've always disliked the piece. But Oue and the orchestra, which does his bidding with Član as well as dispatch, make it one helluva showpiece in the "Professor's" sonic surround.

They play the shorter (i.e. 25-minute) Suite from Appalachian Spring with the same sureness of address and eclat. But I find Oue culturally out-of-step here. Fast tempi invariably go a shade too briskly, while slower ones he moons over. "The Gift to be Simple" isn't, and that's disqualifying if not quite fatal. I think it takes native American conductors of a certain vintage -- ideally younger by 20-30 years than Bernstein -- to get this music "right." The mixture of populism and poetry are indigenous; Copland never topped himself afterwards, although he tried (and failed) in The Tender Land, and in the first movement of the 1950 Clarinet Concerto.

Right now, the best way to hear Appalachian Spring is the complete score as Copland redid his 13-instrument-original for full symphony orchestra, in Michael Tilson Thomas's new version with the San Francisco Symphony on RCA/BMG (reviewed here). Meanwhile, stay tuned for further installments in the Copland centenary celebration.

R.D. (Aug. 2001)