Summary for the Busy Executive: The celebration continues.
Volume 3 of Sony's "A Copland Celebration," the CD continues to explore the byways of Copland's output, with rarities like In the Beginning, Lark, the Dickinson poems, and The Tender Land.
William Warfield turns in a classic performance with both sets of the Old American Songs. He and Copland made a mono recording of the original piano version. Don't miss that one either (on Sony SM2K89326), one of the great vocal recitals. For the remake, Warfield's in slightly rougher voice, but damn, does he sing well, with lines that go on forever and a real flair for singing American English. This is also one of Copland's best outings as a conductor. I've tended to regard most of his recorded readings as "authentic," rather than blood-stirring, especially with Bernstein competing. But Copland the conductor seems to catch fire from Warfield. He gets the power, the lyricism, and even the fun from the score. For me, a landmark stereo recording.
Adele Addison was usually one of my favorite singers. In fact, when I first heard this listless recording from her and Copland, I blamed the work. A subsequent recording with Jan DeGaetani, in not particularly good vocal shape, set me in my ways. However, this view shattered when I heard Copland's mono account with mezzo Martha Lipton (also on SM2K89326), which confirmed the judgment I had usually read: this cycle stands among the very best American songs. But the songs share a similarity of mood and a spareness in the piano writing that can, with insufficient attention from the performers, wear on you. Addison's tone, though higher in timbre than Lipton's, takes on a dull edge. Lipton seems to understand the poems better and finds more emotional and phrasing variety. Pianist Copland catches the dolefuls from Addison. His beautifully lyric playing for Lipton is nowhere in sight here.
Lark, an a cappella piece, comes from the late Thirties. Copland didn't particularly care for the sound of an unaccompanied choir, preferring to mix choral singers with orchestra. Outside of student work for Nadia Boulanger, he wrote, as far as I know, only three a cappella works. Lark suffers from its text – a soupy, knock-off Whitman text by Genevieve Taggard, in an idiom familiar to anyone who's heard the non-Lincoln text to the composer's Lincoln Portrait. Copland in later years was slightly embarrassed that he had set the poem at all. Lark also sets the problem of a choir that can master Copland's Thirties Modernism. The work tends to come at you in short pieces, as if the composer had written it a line at a time. My own college choir performed this work, and we got to sing it for the composer (after he had already recorded it). We knocked him out. He told me he regretted that hadn't waited for us. The NEC choir doesn't nearly come up to our level. They have intonation and blend problems up the wazoo. One doesn't hear the part-writing, but sort of a wad o' sound, especially detrimental to the virtuosically contrapuntal section which make the piece for me. Furthermore, Copland can't overcome the plods. The account stops and starts. One doesn't sense a continuing thread to the work. I admit a conductor must work hard for it, but it can be found.
Similar problems bedevil In the Beginning, a choral counterpart to something like Appalachian Spring. This is, first of all, a masterpiece of modern choral music and of text setting – Genesis complete from chaos to day 7. Copland may not have liked the a cappella choir, but you'd never know it from this. He comes up with new, beautiful choral textures, based perhaps on his "pastoral" orchestral vein, but thoroughly suited to the chorus. The New England Conservatory Chorus does much better in this more demanding work but suffer still from a certain dullness of tone. Again, Copland's tempi tend to lumber rather than dance, which predictably weaken the quick passages. Soloist Margaret Miller, however, stands out – the best performance of this demanding role I've heard. Overall, however, the composer's result aren't a patch on Gregg Smith's, who recorded the work long, long ago for an Everest LP.
Copland called opera, famously, the "forme fatale," indicating the simultaneous attraction and wariness he felt toward the genre. He began with an American equivalent of a Brechtian Lehrstück, The Second Hurricane, a school opera similar in function to Weill and Brecht's Der Jasager. He had few American operas to use as models. He didn't particularly care for either Gershwin or Thomson's examples, and something like Hanson's Merry Mount or Taylor's The King's Henchman probably struck him as, at best, quaint. On the other hand, the opening of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! seemed to promise something: an American subject treated in a genuine American way. He began working on a musical based, I believe, on Erskine Caldwell's Tragic Ground, but gave it up after a while. Nevertheless, the pot started to bubble, and in 1954, he completed The Tender Land. This was, by the way, B. H. Haggin's candidate for the Great American Opera. The music in it is gorgeous, Copland at his most radiant. Yet, it's not really all that good an opera. Copland may sing but doesn't characterize people all that well, and the plot – basically, Is There Life after High School? – comes over as a bit feckless. You don't care enough about most of the characters – with the exception of the ingénue – to worry about the outcome. The initial reviews were mixed, and Copland decided to revise and abridge, cutting out the only plot line that seemed remotely interesting – two drifters falsely accused of rape and murder, a reflection of the McCarthyism of the time. In its abridged form (which we get here), the opera reminds me of a Whitman sampler. Better you should hear it complete (Brunelle on Virgin Classics or Sidlin on Koch). Even so, it doesn't really suit opera stages. Both the dramaturgy and the sensibility are a bit amateurish, frankly. The opera seems locked into the opera-workshop circuit.
A shame, really. The music itself soars. Copland gets a first-rate cast – with Joy Clements, Richard Cassilly, and Norman Treigle both ardent and as believable as Copland's music allows – and a New York Philharmonic playing as well as it ever did for Bernstein. The New York Choral Arts Society raises the emotional roof in the glorious choral parts, for me the best passages of the opera. Don't worry about the plot. Enjoy the tunes.
Copyright © 2004, Steve Schwartz