Copland Before the LP (1928-1949) = Le chat et la souris; Piano Variations; Vitebsk; Two Pieces for Violin and Piano; Vocalise; Danzon Cubano; Sonata for Violin and Piano; Two Pieces for Violin and Piano; Four Piano Blues – Aaron Copland, piano/ Leo Smit, piano/ Ivor Karman, violin/ David Freed, cello/ Jacques Gordon, violin/ Ethel Luening, soprano/ Louis Kaufman, violin – Parnassus PACD 96057, 76:29 (6/20/17) [Distr. by Alliance] ****:
Composer Aaron Copland reveals his equally potent gifts at the keyboard in these rare restorations from Parnassus.
Executive Producer Leslie Gerber, in association with Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn issues some rare documents from the legacy of American classical composer Aaron Copland, each of which testifies to Copland’s strong, even imposing, keyboard technique. The earliest of these sound documents, an Ampico piano roll (1928) of a Scherzo humoristique of 1920, not only benefits from a remarkably quiet restoration, but it certifies the influence of the Parisian, Nadia Boulanger influence at work in Copland’s sensibility. The mood changes abruptly for Copland’s rendition of Piano Variations, a work set in his “craggy, granite period” (rec. 2 April 1935). This “severe” and “bleak” piece based on four notes still rattles listeners, its theme and twenty variations and a coda. Copland admitted that both Stravinsky and Schoenberg affected his scoring of the piece, its tendency to pulverize the basic germ theme into small units and recombine them in the manner of permutations.
The Piano Trio Vitebsk (1929) provides a rare example of Copland’s use of a Jewish theme, a folk song from Ansky’s play The Dybbuk. Ivor Karman(1891-1981), violin and David Freed (1910-1988), cello join Copland (5 April 1935). It seems to us a world ago to think that pianist Walter Gieseking played the world premier at a concert of the League of Composers. The work itself is set in ternary form, with an aesthetic close to that of Bartok: the pianist strikes minor and major triads whilst the strings ply quarter-tones. With the progression of a moody rhapsody, the music moves to a lyrical phase, and the cello will dominate the “ethnic” singing quality of the composition. At the Allegro vivace, the music assumes a parodic stance, twisting the arioso element in the angular, even ‘cubistic’ manner of Stravinsky or Duchamp, a technique we hear in the Piano Variations of 1930. The work does conclude – after a declamatory section mindful of the opening material – with a sense of repose.
For the 22 April 1935 recording of his Two Pieces for Violin and Piano (1926), Copland has violinist Jacques Gordon as his collaborator. The Nocturne has many correspondences to Gershwin of Porgy and Bess fame. Gordon’s nasal intonation suits the spirit of the high melodic tessitura well, a noble, bluesy reading. The violin has moment of cadenza before the piano’s re-entry for the coda. The Ukelale Serenade has the spunky, Americana attitude that seems destined to appear in a film sequence for The Grapes of Wrath. Here, too, jazzy syncopations make their presence known in bravura riffs. The four-minute Vocalise (1928) has soprano Ethel Luening (from a rare New Music Quarterly recording) with Copland in 1935. The piece sounds like a Hollywood warm-up – cross fertilized by Villa-Lobos – for a coloratura soprano in a film starring Deanna Durbin or young Kate Kendall. Much of the piece proceeds a cappella for Ms. Luening, with a bare or ‘dry’ accompaniment in the keyboard.
With Leo Smit (1921-1999), Copland performs a piercing, saucy rendition of the 1942 Danzon Cubano (rec. 1947). Despite the syncopes and passing dissonances, the piece has “matured” into a modality of folkish good humor and traditional, if askew, harmony. The 1943 Violin Sonata generated pleasure in the ears of critic Virgil Thomson, who called the work “one of its author’s most satisfying pieces. It has a quality at once of calm elevation and buoyancy that is characteristic of Copland and irresistibly touching.” The work does have its valedictory impulse, dedicated as it is to the memory of Lieutenant Harry H. Dunham, a friend of Copland who died in the South Pacific. Working with versatile violinist Louis Kaufman (1905-1994) in a 1947 recording studio for the Concert Hall label, the two strike up immediate, forward energy and gracious folk-like gestures. A bucolic, “Appalachian Spring” atmosphere suffuses the opening movement Andante semplice. Copland intones the opening motif of the affecting Lento, an introspective dirge to which Kaufman lends a sense of sweet remembrance. Late in the movement, the violin plays the unaccompanied recitative, to be joined by the simple notes from Copland. The finale, Allegretto giusto, has a snappy, spunky energy that reminds me of Walter Huston’s fiddling in The Devil and Daniel Webster, but a bit more lyrically civilized. From I construe as the same or near-same recording session, Copland and Kaufman reprise the Nocturne from the 1926 Two Pieces for Violin and Piano.
Finally, Copland (rec. 23 May 1949 in London) provides us Four Piano Blues from 1948, each bearing a dedication to an outsanding piano virtuoso of the period: Leo Smit, Andor Foldes, William Kapell, and John Kirkpatrick. “Freely Poetic” (for Leo Smit) has a “torch song” character in its drooping phrases. “Soft and Languid” (for Andor Foldes) intones more liquid phrases, touch by a sense of stride. One of Debussy’s music-hall preludes seems close by. “Muted and Drugged” seems an unlikely designation for the flamboyant American virtuoso William Kapell, but perhaps it captures his roaming, poetic spirit. “With Bounce” (for John Kirkpatrick) must allude to Kirkpatrick’s potent way with piano sonatas by Charles Ives. Most Gershwineque, this piece approaches honky-tonk and early swing in its quick metrical adjustments.