A Guide to Copland’s Appalachian Spring and its Best Recordings

VSOpland wrote the last of his three major ballets on American subjects in 1944/45 for the formidable dancer and choreographer Martha Graham and her company. It was originally composed to fit a storyline set in the Civil War, but Graham layered a different storyline on a celebration of spring in the hills of Pennsylvania.

The score, a sustained affirmation of the value of the major scale, includes suggestions for square dance rhythms, but its only quotation is from a Shaker sect hymn, Simple gifts (Where The gift to be simple), which provides the theme for a sequence of variations. The piece was originally written for an ensemble of 13 musicians (flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano and strings) and lasted more than half an hour. But in 1945 cop lands arranged it as a continuum after about 25 minutes for refueling orchestra; and in this form it became one of his most popular concert works.

Copland’s Best Appalachian Spring Recordings

Aaron Copland (conductor and composer)

London Symphony Orchestra (1970)

Sony 88883737232 (5 CDs)

Copland was a fine driver of his own music, accomplished in getting what he wanted from musicians in the manner of phrasing and color, and above all confident in steering orchestras through his characteristic shifting meters. He made two recordings of the orchestra Appalachian Spring. His 1961 version with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (for RCA; now on Regis and downloads) has an appealing freshness, but is beset by background rumble.

In any case, he is surpassed by his later recording with the London Symphony Orchestra (a die best orchestras in the world), an orchestra with which he enjoyed a happy and productive association on the concert stage and in the studio. The beginning and end say a lot about the show. At the start, misty, floating string triads support simply sung wind phrases, setting the stage for an innocent pastoral idyll; at the end, against a similar string background, the harp and the glockenspiel combine with perfect precision on the three notes which form a perfect final gesture of blessing. In between, the faster-paced episodes crackle with incisive attacks and sustained energy, while moments of heightened emotion are given just the right amount of expressive weight – standing out from the calm, serene and ever-tender pastoral music. The recording matches the performance in its brightness and clarity. This is a classic retelling of Copland’s masterpiece that deserves a place in any music lover’s library.

John Wilson (conductor)

BBC Philharmonic (2015)

Chandos CHSA 5164 (hybrid CD/SACD)

If you’re looking for the most up-to-date sounding recording, this performance from John Wilson’s new Copland series is for you. Wilson is renowned for being steeped in popular American idioms, which proves to be a perfect foundation for directing Copland’s music. His interpretation has an infectious verve in its rapid episodes and a continuous flow integrating those with solemn and prayerful passages. It seems closely modeled on the composer’s: an unmarked acceleration turns out to be exactly what Copland did at the time. The BBC Philharmonic responds with pristine ‘white’ wood tone, gleaming brass and string colors ranging from subtly overlapping sound waves to whiplash attacks. The recording quality is exemplary.

Nicolas Collon (conductor)

Aurora Orchestra (2014)

Warner 0825646327911

In 1972, Copland authorized the release of his suite in the original score for 13 instruments. Many listeners prefer it in this form, forgoing the rich, brilliant coloring of the orchestral arrangement in favor of the simplicity and directness of the chamber tones. There are several good recordings of this version – notably that of the young London-based Aurora Orchestra on his road tripalbum. Nicholas Collon offers a lively and fresh reading of the score, without any trace of routine. The string playing is impressively unified, in textures that can be unforgiving at the slightest near-miss, and responsive in its reaction to different moods; the woodwinds make well-characterized contributions; the pianist is great. The recording offers a satisfyingly full, well-integrated sound.

Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (1999)

RCA 82876658402

No one has yet given us the complete original ballet of the Martha Graham company band parts – although Copland has made a recording (Sony download) incorporating into the 13-instrument suite an additional nine-minute episode which is very different from the rest of the piece, with passages of menacing insistent rhythms anticipating John Adams. Meanwhile, there is an orchestral score of (more or less) the complete ballet which Copland made for a single performance in 1954. It is played in full in two intermittently heavy recordings conducted by Leonard Slatkin (Warner and Naxos) . But Michael Tilson Thomas, in making a careful selection from the extra material, strikes a better balance between the dark drama of the new main episode, the sharpness of the faster music and the sweetness of the pastoral idyll – all matched by the nice recording.

Artwork by Steve Rawlings / Early Arts

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