What a special treat Bridge Records has provided by being the electronic fly-on-the-wall for Aaron Copland’s 81st birthday concert at the Library of Congress.
With the composer just a few yards away, pianist Leo Smit and mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani employed their considerable talents in a carefully chosen collection of piano solos and art songs that spanned the guest of honour’s illustrious career.
Completed when just 21, the Three Moods leaves no doubt that French music was in Copland’s artistic veins as surely as his American heritage. “Amertume” asks more questions than it answers, foreshadows the jazz to come and vents a bit of anger—all of that in mere seconds from the composer who aptly demonstrates the truth of Felix Salzer’s notion that “music is motion in time”. “Pensif” provides much food for thought and a motif that delightfully, unsuspectingly links back to Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin composed just four years earlier. A splash of Gershwinesque chromaticism seeps into “Jazzy” where Smit excels both in the hot swing that engagingly surrounds a cool middle-section.
Just over a half-century later (1972), Night Thoughts reveals the composer’s more dissonant side, creating wafts of pain purposely relieved/balanced by gentler moments that have a decidedly cinematic tone. Smit’s impassioned, thoughtful reading is a highlight, showing the fellow composer’s special insight as to why the notes are on the page. The final arpeggios have a delicate Parisian tinge that reaffirms Copland’s special affinity for his formative influences, not least of which was Nadia Boulanger.
The recording begins with a trio of songs that underscores the composer’s incredible gift for incorporating “simple” tunes into high art. Zion’s Walls resonates with guttural shouts of revivalist devotion. DeGaetani delivers a master class of control and shape when she is At the River. Simple Gifts, with its Shaker melody that moved Copland unstoppably towards his finest works including Appalachian Spring and the Third Symphony, must have reminded everyone in the room what genius can create from a singular idea until “we come round right.”
There can be little doubt that the spark for Smit’s six song-cycle, The Ecstatic Pilgrimage (1988-91; cross-reference below), came from his close association with Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson. In this performance, DeGaetani crafts a magnificently detailed canvas overflowing with Copland’s wonderful word painting (from “the feeblest or waywardest” to “I left them in the ground”) and accompaniments that are at one with the poet’s ideas about nature, death, life and eternity. Can you hear the wind?—look no further than “There came a wind like a bugle.” On the same page as Somerset Maugham’s notion that “What is ambition when you have discovered that honours are to the pushing and glory to the vulgar?” (The Explorer) when we learn in “The world feels dusty” that “Honors taste dry.” A poignant “to-night” in “Heart, we will forget him!” may connect the dots to colleague/friend Leonard Bernstein’s song of the same name. A deliciously whimsical sorbet (“Dear March, come in!”) artfully balances much of the angst that precedes and follows. Understanding the power of art—even on the unintentionally artless—is perfectly described when “I’ve heard an organ talk sometimes” finally stops. The heady mix of trance and unearthly dream (“The Chariot”) concludes the set with beautifully intimate understatements imagining the final movement beyond life.
The musical portion (there is also a brief interview capturing Copland’s considerable wit and fast-paced delivery) of the disc concludes with a lullaby (The Little Horses) whose exquisite mood is typically spoiled with a sudden sneeze as the tender adieu slips away into the night, reminding listeners all too well that this concert is live.
Curiously, in his own words:
For me, the most important thing is the element of chance that is built into a live performance. The very great drawback of recorded sound is the fact that it is always the same. No matter how wonderful a recording is, I know that I couldn't live with it—even of my own music—with the same nuances forever.
True enough, from the composer’s point of view, but for the rest of us (human foibles withstanding) to have such deeply felt performances as these ready to be summoned at any moment in time, enables those who love his music to repeatedly open this musical offering and accept, once again, Copland’s marvellous gift. JWR