A guide to Copland's Appalachian Spring and its best recordings
The 1940s ballet Appalachian Spring has become one of Copland’s most popular works. And its true American spirit has inspired many great recordings, finds Anthony Burton
Copland wrote the last of his three great ballets on American subjects in 1944/45 for the redoubtable dancer and choreographer Martha Graham and her company. It was originally composed to fit a storyline set in the Civil War, but Graham superimposed a different scenario about a celebration of spring in the Pennsylvania hills.
The score, a sustained assertion of the value of the major scale, includes suggestions of square-dance rhythms, but its only quotation is of a hymn of the Shaker sect, Simple Gifts (or The gift to be simple), which provides the theme for a sequence of variations. The piece was originally written for an ensemble of 13 players (flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano and strings) and lasted well over half an hour. But in 1945 Copland arranged it as a continuous suite of about 25 minutes for full orchestra; and in this form it’s become one of his most popular concert works.
The best recordings of Copland's Appalachian Spring
Aaron Copland (conductor and composer)
London Symphony Orchestra (1970)
Sony 88883737232 (5 CDs)
Copland was a fine conductor of his own music, accomplished in obtaining what he wanted from players in the way of phrasing and colour, and especially assured in piloting orchestras through his characteristic changing metres. He made two recordings of the orchestral 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, it’s surpassed by his later recording with the London Symphony Orchestra (one of the best orchestras in the world), an orchestra with which he enjoyed a happy and productive association on the concert platform and in the studio. The beginning and ending say a good deal about the performance. At the start, misty, drifting string triads support simply sung wind phrases, setting the scene of an innocent pastoral idyll; at the end, against a similar string background, harp and glockenspiel combine with perfect precision on the three notes which make a perfect closing gesture of benediction. In between, the faster episodes crackle with incisive attacks and sustained energy, while moments of heightened emotion are given just the right expressive weight – standing out from the quiet, serene, always tender pastoral music. The recording matches the performance in its luminosity and clarity. This is a classic account of Copland’s masterpiece, deserving of a place in every music-lover’s library.
John Wilson (conductor)
BBC Philharmonic (2015)
Chandos CHSA 5164 (hybrid CD/SACD)
If you’re looking for a recording in the most up-to-date sound, this performance in John Wilson’s new Copland series is for you. Wilson is famously steeped in US popular idioms, which proves to be a perfect grounding for conducting Copland’s music. His interpretation has an infectious verve in its fast episodes, and a seamless flow integrating those with the solemn, prayerful passages. It seems closely modelled on the composer’s own: one unmarked speeding-up turns out to be just what Copland did at that point. The BBC Philharmonic responds with pristine ‘white’ woodwind tone, brilliant brass, and string colours ranging from subtly overlapping waves of sound to whiplash attacks. The recording quality is exemplary.
Nicholas Collon (conductor)
Aurora Orchestra (2014)
In 1972, Copland authorised the release of his suite in the original scoring for 13 instruments. Many listeners prefer it in this guise, forgoing the rich and brilliant colouring of the orchestral arrangement in favour of the simplicity and directness of the chamber sonorities. There are several good recordings of this version – notably the one by the young London-based Aurora Orchestra on its Road Trip album. Nicholas Collon presents a lively, fresh reading of the score, without a hint of routine. The string playing is impressively unanimous, in textures which can be unforgiving of the slightest near miss, and responsive in its reaction to different moods; the woodwind make well-characterised contributions; the pianist is brilliant. The recording offers sound of satisfying, well-integrated fullness.
Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)
San Francisco Symphony (1999)
No one has yet given us the complete original ballet from the Martha Graham company’s band parts – though Copland did make a recording (Sony download) incorporating into the 13-instrument suite one additional nine-minute episode that’s very different from the rest of the piece, with passages of threatening insistent rhythms anticipating John Adams. Meanwhile, there’s an orchestral scoring of (more or less) the full ballet which Copland made for a one-off 1954 performance. It’s played complete in two intermittently ponderous recordings conducted by Leonard Slatkin (Warner and Naxos). But Michael Tilson Thomas, making a judicious selection among the additional material, achieves a better balance between the dark drama of the main new episode, the crispness of the faster music, and the sweetness of the pastoral idyll – all matched by the handsome recording.
Illustration by Steve Rawlings/Debut Art