Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3, completed in 1946, is hardly what one would call a finely crafted work. It is, rather, overstuffed and sprawling. And wonderful--in its spiritedness, its nobility and optimism, in its combination of dramatic punch and lyricism.
The ultimate fault of the Third Symphony is the excessive richness of thematic invention crammed into its 40-plus minutes' playing time and the refusal of the composer--bless him!--to whittle it into sleeker form.
The Third Symphony is not frequently performed or recorded, but now it suddenly is in two new and very fine recorded editions: by the Dallas Symphony under Eduardo Mata (Angel 37365, LP; 47606, CD) and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein (Deutsche Grammophon 419 170, LP or CD).
Mata and his responsive Texans give it the kind of taut, urgent, clear-textured reading it has always needed but never seems to receive. Bernstein sees it in grander--and slower--terms, most notably in the finale, with its stirring opening quotation of Copland's own "Fanfare for the Common Man." It works either way, but Mata, without deleting or misrepresenting a measure of the music, manages to bring it all into sharper focus.
In the crucial matter of coupling, Mata-Angel are easy winners, with exceptionally energetic, cleanly executed readings of Copland's cheeky "Danzon Cubano" and his dazzling populist extravaganza, "El Salon Mexico." Bernstein-DG, less generous in terms both of quantity and musical quality, give us only the composer's slight "Quiet City."
Superb recorded sound in both editions, particularly in compact disc format, with Angel's sonics rather close-to, in accordance with Mata's sharp-edged, clarifying interpretation of the symphony, and DG's lushly resonant, as befits Bernstein's more dense and rhetorical one.
Another great American symphony can be found on the mid-priced London Enterprise label (414 661, LP only): the Second of Charles Ives in a reissued 1976 performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under then-music director Zubin Mehta.
Ives' Second, unlike Copland's Third, is not all-American in its inspiration, but rather a concoction from the American musical melting pot. Ives was, after all, writing very early in this century and the influence of Mitteleuropa remains pervasive. The result is a late-Romantic symphony, making its obeisances to Wagner and Dvorak, yet having as a leitmotif "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," quoting from numerous hymn and folk tunes and concluding with a sendup of "Reveille." Only in America, and only from Charles Ives.
This work, performed with some frequency during the '60s and early '70s, should long ago have joined the so-called standard repertory. But the general decline in Ives's stock since the overexposure attending the 1974 centenary of his birth has consigned this very lovely, very listenable piece to near-oblivion, along with the more off-putting creations of Ol' Charlie, sometime musical bogeyman and ear-stretcher.
The present performance is affectionate, relaxed, a bit syrupy where some vinegar would not have been amiss. The playing is decent, Mehta-LAPO-standard: a somewhat scrappy string ensemble, handsome flute, oboe and cello solos and, in the finale, a fine blast of massed brass. It is generously coupled with a splendid performance by the same forces of the wholly traditional, wholly European First Symphony of Ives, written in 1895 as an undergraduate exercise at Yale and proving that its composer had learned well the lessons of Dvorak (above all), Brahms and, surprisingly--in the broad opening theme--Bruckner.
A program comprising three of Leonard Bernstein's 1940s dance scores--"On the Town," "Fancy Free," "Facsimile"--and the "Candide" Overture is presented in ultra-lucid, brilliantly executed readings by the St. Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin's direction (Angel 47522, CD) that are just a bit too tough and angular, too undancy when placed beside the composer's own versions.
Also from Angel, lilting, rollicking, utterly delectable performances by Leonard Pennario of a Gershwin program devoted primarily to the "Song Book" (37359, LP; 47418, CD), solo piano arrangements by the composer of some of his most familiar tunes, "Swanee," "The Man I Love," " 'S Wonderful," "Lady Be Good," etc., and such lesser-known but hardly less worthy ditties as "Do It Again," "Sweet and Low-Down" and "Who Cares."
Included as well are the ubiquitous Three Preludes and "Promenade," in addition to such rarities as the "Primrose" ballet music and a couple of bluesy waltzes. In all, a most imaginative, imaginatively played program that should appeal to a wide variety of tastes.