Aaron Copland learnt an important lesson from Nadia Boulanger: keep it simple. The renowned composition pedagogue and mighty force in French contemporary music impressed upon the young American the importance of making orchestral music immediately playable, lest he get on the wrong side of conductor and band. Aware of the consequences, Copland didn’t follow the advice. The result is a fascinating collection of early symphonic sorties, presented on Chandos by the BBC Philharmonic under John Wilson’s baton.
The Symphony for Organ and Orchestra opens with a nonchalant Andante, featuring slowly drifting melodic lines without clear harmonic focus. The BBC Symphony strings and winds exude a gentle warmth, matching nicely the sensitive timbral world of Jonathan Scott’s organ. Energy builds in the Scherzo, which features the tune-crafting and rhythmic verve Copland became famous for in his Appalachian Spring. The symphony returns to the warmth of the opening movement in the slow, searching finale, which has a darker, more stern atmosphere, with the organ used to particularly dramatic effect.
The stern mood prevails in the composer’s own orchestration of his Piano Variations, which are built on an austere theme announced by low brass, strings and percussion. The miniature variations that follow continue the hostile and forbidding tone of the opening, undergoing transformations, not just of basic rhythmic and melodic features, but also of colour and texture. The music traverses lyrical, jagged and nervous states, perfectly managed under Wilson’s assured direction.
The Short Symphony is a charming contrast. There’s still the melodic and timbral pointillism, and the rhythmic momentum that’s fun and familiar in Copland’s cowboy music, though the harmonic language is somewhat thornier. Running just over 15 minutes, this petite symphonic excursion is a nice divertissement, though it doesn’t quite measure up in might to the other works on the disc. The final movement has an endearing sparkle, nonetheless.
The Symphonic Ode develops forth from a dramatic brass and woodwind statement, which becomes a kind of thematic kernel for the entire work – an experiment in la grande ligne, the technique of structural flow and unity Copland inherited from Boulanger. The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s reading is bright, presented with dazzling precision, from the impressive opening, through the effervescent second movement Allegro, the light third movement and a bright fourth and powerful finale. One can’t help but hear John Adams, a more contemporary North American powerhouse, prefigured in this shining symphonic score.