The Copland of the '20s jazzes up a new disc Bonus points: 'Symphonic Ode' and the Piano Concerto are included as well as the ubiquitous 'Appalachian Spring.'


January 21, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Aaron Copland, "Appalachian Spring," "Symphonic Ode" and Piano Concerto, performed by the Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz conducting, and (in the Piano Concerto) Lorin Hollander (Delos DE 3154)

This excellent Copland collection is a breath of fresh air. Yes, this disc does contain the ubiquitous "Appalachian Spring," but the other items are important Copland pieces that do not turn up very often.

Both the "Ode" and the Piano Concerto represent the Copland of the 1920s -- the brash modernist, freshly back from his studies in Paris and excited by the possibilities for jazz in symphonic music. Like some other American conductors of his generation, Schwarz has a flair for 20th-century music, and he doesn't disappoint. The "Ode" moves along logically, coherently and with considerable energy. The Piano Concerto is beautifully performed by Hollander, one of the few pianists who has made it part of his permanent repertory, and by Schwarz and his fine orchestra, one of the few conductor-orchestra teams receptive to programming such neglected music. Indeed, the neglect of this relatively short -- 18 minutes -- two-movement concerto is hard to fathom. The slow opening movement is a pleasingly lyrical slow blues and is followed by an intriguing final one, which combines another slow blues with a snappy number as good as anything George Gershwin ever came up with in his symphonic works. Schwarz's performance of "Appalachian Spring" is competitive with any in the catalog.

Alfred Schnittke, "Requiem," performed by the Swedish Radio Choir and percussion-brass ensemble, Tonu Kaljuste conducting; Henryk Gorecki, "Miserere," performed by Swedish Radio Choir and Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, Kaljuste conducting (Caprice CAP 21515)

Some of the most ambitious, large-scale endeavors in sacred music in recent years have come from Eastern Europe, behind what used to be called the Iron Curtain. Neither composer needs any introduction: Gorecki is the composer of the Symphony No. 3 ("The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs") that hit the pop charts a few years back; Schnittke, after a long period in which his music was suppressed, has emerged as the leading composer from what used to be the Soviet Union.

The Schnittke work is a masterpiece. It is an example of what can be called Eastern European minimalism, but nothing about "Requiem" is boring. The frequently repeated motifs and discords are varied by distinctive instrumental effects from the percussion, from tubular bells, from electric guitar and bass, and from the organ. And the dramatic ascent, though interrupted by savage relapses, is both exciting and moving. The work is wonderfully sung by these forces from Sweden, where Schnittke's music is performed more than anywhere else in the world.

Gorecki's chorus-only "Miserere" receives a comparably fine performance. This huge, 35-minute work was written in 1981 to protest the Polish police's brutal beating of union strikers in the first difficult days of the Solidarity movement. The piece is carefully wrought, and it is one of the composer's own favorites among his works. But its unremitting intensity and massive repetition do not translate easily. Hearing three words, "Domine Deus noster," sung by eight voices, one after the other and in unbroken order, is more water-dripping torture than one can bear in a winter already so grim with snow.

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