It’s always a pleasure when a conductor is emotionally and intellectually invested in a composer and his work beyond just the dots on the page, and Benjamin Northey is clearly committed to Aaron Copland. It was a pleasure, then, to hear him tackle the brilliant Symphony No 3, a work that for all of its populist outlook – it incorporates, and has been somewhat overshadowed by, Fanfare for the Common Man – is under-played, under-recorded and underrated.
But first a little Andrew Ford and some Rachmaninov. Ford’s Headlong was written for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s 75th birthday in 2006, but revised last year as the composer felt it was too – well – headlong! Beginning with a great clanging of bells and brass, it’s a dynamic work with lashings of tuned percussion, that settles down in its ravishing central section with harps and shimmering strings supporting some highly attractive writing for bass clarinet and cor anglais. With the orchestra on fine form, Northey gave it a scrupulously balanced reading. With occasional echoes of Berg and Stravinsky, it’s a colourful score full of structural interest and invention, and one well worth reviving.
Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto was the meat in the first half, and given a deceptively effortless performance by Simon Tedeschi. There’s an elusive quality to the opening, and it’s not until the lovely second subject with piano pitched against oboe, cor anglais and horns that it gets into its stride. Tedeschi’s relaxed dexterity lent an easy logic to music that can seem excessively complicated, while Northey shaped the big, Russian themes with care and attention to detail.
The second movement with its memorable misterioso theme rightly sat at the heart of this reading, Tedeschi giving it just the right amount of space and interpretative freedom without ever wallowing. Northey took his cue from the soloist creating a lyrical nocturnal mood of great subtlety. The finale had plenty of heft in brass and percussion, while Tedeschi generated the requisite fireworks as orchestra and soloist pushed on to the big, scrunchy climax. Just occasionally the balance tipped in favour of the orchestra and the solo line was lost to the ear, but generally this was a satisfying and distinguished reading capped by a brilliant Chopin Revolutionary Etude as encore.
Introducing the Copland, Northey made the point, and it’s an important one in this post-truth world, that this grand symphony of 1944 isn’t just an American monument, it contains a message for all humanity and reminds us that America is great, not because of its GDP or its military might, but because of its constitutional freedoms and – not forgetting that Rachmaninov was himself an immigrant – its openness to all.
The irony that the composer of this masterly work was hauled in front of McCarthy’s Un-American activities Committee in 1953 and grilled by the notoriously unscrupulous Roy Cohn, latterly legal counsel and political mentor to no less than Donald J Trump, was not lost on this reviewer. Copland’s music proves that America has always been great, and is great now, for all the current White House incumbent would have us believe otherwise.
As Vincent Plush’s insightful programme notes reveal, there are many ways to interpret the symphony – a pastoral idyll versus the military state, innocence versus experience, even a Marxist dialectic in musical form. Northey’s reading lets you make your own mind up, showing you what Copland actually wrote without the interventionism of a Bernstein, for example. Opening with those signature rich string lines and warm brass chords, so redolent of the wide-open plains, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra embraced the majestic in a well-crafted reading of the lengthy opening movement. Generally disciplined in manner, Northey wasn’t afraid to let rip at the decidedly Brucknerian climaxes, before tapering things off into eloquent repose with moments of deliciously bluesy woodwind.
The Allegro molto second movement was crisp and vigorous, Copland’s dazzling orchestration incorporating square dance and marching band. Northey kept matters nicely in check, allowing room for the requisite toe tapping, but refusing to over-egg the snarling snare drums at the end. With its high opening violins reminding us that Shostakovich Seven was a contemporaneous work, the third movement had plenty of contrasts – the mercurial section with harps, flute, oboe and piccolo solos was especially delicately done – before the magical moment when two flutes steal in with the Fanfare theme and we pile into the exuberant finale.
Given the increasingly demanding tessitura, the brass did a pretty spectacular job in the last movement, but the Allegro risoluto is full of contrasts, and harps, horns and piccolo (again) deserve special mention as Northey rode the work into its deafening final furlong. It was the playwright Clifford Odets who found in Copland’s music “as lofty a nature as we in America have yet expressed”. Seventy years on that still rings true.
Symphony for the Common Man is repeated on March 17 and 18