Dennis Russell Davies

Copland: Dance Panels; Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson; Short Symphony

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This disc of Copland orchestral works, with the all-American forces of conductor Dennis Russell Davies and the Orchestra of St. Luke's, was originally released in 1992 on the MusicMasters label; it is part of a series on Britain's Nimbus label reissuing various high-quality items from that defunct outfit. All three of the compositions included are lesser-known Copland, and one might wonder why at least one big hit wasn't included. But it's an intelligent program that will appeal to serious Copland lovers, and Davies deserves kudos for having taken some chances. The key is that all three compositions are transitional or mixed-style works, and they seem to show the essence of Copland even as they defy classification among his early, middle, and late styles. The little-heard Dance Panels, Copland's last ballet score, lie in between Copland's popular style and his late adoption of serialism. The work is not atonal (Copland called it "white-notey"), but it drops the popular and folk orientation of Copland's famous scores. Davies' reading of the delicate Pas de Trois (track 4) brings out the score's modest virtues to the hilt. The Short Symphony, composed in 1933, contains aspects of Copland's early interest in jazz as well as of his flirtation with high modernism in the early '30s. The work is heard here in a kind of reduction for chamber orchestra by Davies, done with the blessing of the aged Copland himself. It might have been nice to mention that somewhere on the outside of the packaging, but it's actually a fine version that brings out the work's complex rhythms. The Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, under perfect control from mezzo soprano Helene Schneiderman, date from the late '40s and also avoid explicitly American idioms. They're sober songs, quite different from the roughly contemporaneous Old American Songs. Copland orchestrated these from piano versions, and the exquisite vocal lines, alternating between highlighting the poems' metrical simplicity and following their deeper rhythms and psychological currents, can stand up to the weightier treatment. Sound is just adequate, and the booklet notes are subpar, with several unconnected items and tiresome flogging of the dead horse of orchestras' early difficulties with the Short Symphony; nobody finds time for a biography of the performers. The notes are in English only and include versions of the Dickinson texts minus their integral punctuation. Nevertheless, this belongs in good Copland collections.

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