Presto News - 29th January 2016
John Wilson conducts music by Aaron Copland
Today sees the release of the first volume in a new series of Copland’s Orchestral Works on Chandos, with John Wilson conducting the BBC Philharmonic (a new partnership, this, at least on disc –Wilson’s residency with the orchestra last year, shortly before these recordings were made, was a roaring success) in a programme centred around ballet music: the suites from Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring, the Four Dances from Rodeo, plus El Salón México and Fanfare for the Common Man.
I recall Chris and I both raising eyebrows of pleased surprise when we first found out that Wilson was to be at the helm for this project: the Gateshead-born conductor’s become a household name for his glorious technicolor recordings of the great stage-and-screen musicals of the mid-twentieth century, often painstakingly reconstructed from short scores and many hours of arduous transcription of the soundtracks and performed by his own hand-picked orchestra of players from jazz, classical and Broadway/West End backgrounds (Chris and I last heard him electrifying the Albert Hall with a fabulous all-Gershwin programme, out soon on Warner). But Wilson has both serious form as an interpreter of more standard twentieth-century repertoire and a passion for erasing boundaries between ‘classical’ and ‘light’ music; paradoxical though this statement may seem, this disc bears testimony to both.
His lifelong immersion in the sound-world of 30s and 40s American music is evident from the off, with the distant trumpets in Fanfare for the Common Man glowing with that vibrato-warmed vintage brass sound that’s so distinctive in his recordings of the great musicals, and at the beginning of Billy the Kid his innate ability to tap into the filmic elements of the music is so acute that it conjures an instant mental image of the MGM logo zooming into focus over the prairies. (If I’m honest, part of me expected Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Curly Maclaine to burst into song at this point, and I don’t think it’s just the power of association that points up the similarities between Copland and his musical-theatre contemporaries here: I’ve never noticed before how much the fight-sequences in Billy the Kid prefigure The Rumble in Bernstein’s West Side Story, or how closely the cross-cultural dance-music anticipates the forced jollity of The Farmer and the Cowman’s uneasy knees-up in Oklahoma!).
But Wilson is never one to impose a one-size-fits-all approach to music-making, and whilst there are some lightbulb-moments which illuminate parallels between Copland and Wilson’s more usual stomping-ground, there’s never a sense of him asserting The John Wilson Sound TM (all swooning strings and just-sleazy-enough brass) unless the music explicitly invites it. What struck me most of all about the disc as a whole was the delicacy and subtlety, the infinite varieties of light and shade, that Wilson conjures from Copland’s scores: every single phrase of all the works presented here feels truly balletic, and the music never stops dancing.
Just occasionally I missed the gutsy audacity of the star trumpeters from Wilson’s own orchestra in El Salón México (which, fittingly enough, feels more like a glossy picture-postcard from an urban tourist than an authentic representation of central America), but the shimmering heat-haze conjured by the strings (plus some wonderfully idiomatic woodwind solo work) soon distracted me from that.
It’s in the Four Dances from Rodeo that what I think of as that distinctive John Wilson Sound really comes into play, and it’s a glorious coda to a wonderful new disc. I look forward to the subsequent instalments (and especially the symphonies) immensely, and here’s hoping that Wilson’s explorations of Americana continue further afield…
Copland: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1
BBC Philharmonic, John Wilson
Presto Interview – Alec Roth's A Time To Dance
The British composer Alec Roth has a knack for pairing striking texts with music of great melodic inventiveness and appeal; for his latest album he's turned his hand to a cantata on three combined themes. A Time To Dance concerns itself with the human life, the seasons, and the hours of the day - and the ways in which these reflect one another in poetry and literary thought.
The cantata - together with a couple of smaller works, including a setting of the Evening Canticles - was recorded last August by Ex Cathedra under Jeffrey Skidmore, and David found time between takes to quiz Alec about the complex tapestry of ideas underpinning his new work.
Denise Duval (1921-2016)
The French soprano Denise Duval, known primarily for her close cooperation with Francis Poulenc, has died aged 94. Duval established herself as an operatic singer, and would remain a prominent interpreter of French opera in particular throughout her life.
She also inspired the composer to base several major roles and works around her voice. La voix humaine was a collaborative work between the two, and reflects their musical partnership particularly strongly.
A full obituary can be found here.
Presto Interview – Martin Fröst on Roots
Swedish clarinettist Martin Fröst takes us on a whirlwind tour across the millennia and continents with his new disc, Roots - exploring even further off the beaten track than he's ventured before, with music from second-century Greece, twelfth-century Germany and contemporary Latvia alongside traditional Romanian, klezmer and blues influences.
David spoke to Martin about this fascinatingly varied project, and about the various strands he's drawn together in recording it.
Katherine Cooper - email@example.com
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