While Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3 is viewed as being one of his most characteristic masterworks, his earlier efforts in the form of symphony -- including at least four separate projects -- are not nearly as well celebrated. In Naxos' Copland: Dance Symphony, conductor Marin Alsop, known for her special facility with "classic" American works of this kind, leads the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in what might be termed Copland's symphonic "outtakes," symphonies that Copland undertook, but that really didn't make it to the mantle of the Symphony No. 3. For Copland, the unnumbered Dance Symphony (1925) was a matter of damage control, an attempt to rescue music written for his early ballet Grohg (1922-1925) that had no hope of being staged; Copland remarked that he didn't number it "because it is really not a symphony in the traditional sense." However, it won him an RCA Victor-sponsored competition in 1929, Copland's first such honor, and has gained some middleweight following as a work; it has been recorded by Copland himself, Antal Dorati, and a live recording of Leonard Bernstein leading the work surfaced long after Bernstein died. Alsop seems to have prepared it well and provides it with a lovely sense of shape not found in other recordings; she has referred to its palpitating conclusion, "Dance of Mockery," as being like "Billy the Kid meets Jaws" and Alsop's enthusiasm about it carries over into her interpretation.
More readily recognizable as Copland is the Short Symphony, numbered as "No. 2" (1933), in which his trademark rhythmic vocabulary comes into contact with a slightly more tart harmonic profile than might be readily associated with him, although this short, multi-movement work contains some ideas later recycled into Appalachian Spring. This, too, has gained some traction, though mostly in the last decades of the twentieth century when the complex rhythms Copland calls for were more germane to standard orchestral performance; in 1951, Copland wrote to conductor William Strickland, "the Short Symphony is frightfully difficult and should not be attempted unless you have plenty of rehearsal time." It appears that whatever the Short Symphony might need, it has gotten here, as this is the best of the three performances on this Naxos disc; one can really feel the craftsmanship and love that went into it, and it really packs a punch.
The toughest nut to crack is the Symphony No. 1 (1928), which is merely a recasting of the Symphony for organ and orchestra into standard orchestral garb, a stopgap against the odd instrumentation of the source work; Copland had no way of knowing that it ultimately would be the original that would catch on. Even though Alsop does a really fine job in representing this symphony with its best face on -- it is an exceedingly rare work for Copland, only recorded twice before -- this is clearly the weak sister among the three; it takes so long to get off the ground, and the noisy, Stravinskian finale -- while in itself exciting -- is out of balance with the rest of the work.
Alsop has expressed her fascination for Copland's off-brand orchestral music, and one can be grateful for Naxos' Copland: Dance Symphony for representing Copland's early orchestral works in such a clear cut and accomplished fashion, hitting the high points where they might be found. However, Copland's struggle to produce a decent symphony was best realized in the Symphony No. 3 and his talent overall best suited to ballet; that doesn't limit our perception of him in the way it might some other composers whose works for the stage tend to minimize efforts in other mediums. While posterity might not be wrong in elevating Copland's Symphony No. 3 above the others, what Alsop has achieved here is likely the best possible representation of what remains, and as such, commends itself to anyone who wants to know more about this part of Aaron Copland's legacy.