Thursday, May 07, 2009


For the last month or so, Joshua and I have kept four discs in our player, all selected primarily because the music is very life-affirming. By design, we continue to lean on the music of Bach, Brahms and Copland.

Bach organ music, performed by Michael Murray, on the Telarc label

Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass and Haydn’s Mass “In Time Of War”, performed by Sylvia McNair, Delores Ziegler, Hans-Peter Blochwitz, Andreas Schmidt, the RIAS Chamber Choir and the Berlin Philharmonic under James Levine, on the Deutsche Grammophon label

Brahms lieder, performed by Nathalie Stutzmann and Inger Sodergren, on the RCA label

Orchestral music of Copland, performed by the Saint Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin, on the EMI label

The disc of Bach organ music is titled “The Great Organ At Methuen” and was Murray’s first solo disc for Telarc. The disc, issued in 1980, was Telarc’s first disc of organ music and was one of the first—if not THE first—digital organ recordings.

Only five works are on the disc: Fantasia and Fugue In G Minor, BWV 542; Toccata In F Major, BWV 540; Passacaglia And Fugue In C Minor, BWV 582; and two Chorale Preludes. Typical of the early-digital age, the disc contains only 40 minutes of music—and yet has remained in the active catalog for almost thirty years.

Murray is a flashy player, and his Bach is not to all tastes. Nonetheless, the greatness of the Passacaglia And Fugue In C Minor fully comes across and, for most listeners, that is what matters most.

The brilliance, clarity, richness, depth and bass response of the recording must have been a revelation in 1980.

Joshua and I have not yet gone to Methuen to see and hear the Methuen organ, but we plan to do so before we leave Boston.

The recording of Mozart’s “Kronungsmesse”, KV 317, and Haydn’s “Missa In Tempore Belli” (“Paukenmesse”), Hob. XXII/9, was issued in 1992. It was made during live performances at the Philharmonie in Berlin and represents one of Levine’s final appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic and one of his final recordings with Deutsche Grammophon. Both orchestra and record label terminated their associations with Levine not long after the performances captured on this recording.

The recording is a complete dud. Despite excellent soloists, an excellent chorus and an excellent orchestra, these performances are frighteningly dull, resolutely refusing to come to life even for a single second.

The fault lies in the hands of the conductor. Simply put, Levine cannot conduct music from The Classical Period to save his life. This disc should never have been issued (and, understandably, departed the domestic and European catalogs almost as soon as it was released).

The disc of Brahms songs—issued in 1997—did not last long in the domestic catalog, either, and this is regrettable, because it is one of the finest discs of Brahms songs ever made.

French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann is a magnificent singer of the German lied—indeed, her work in German art song is generally superior to her work in French art song—and her Brahms disc is one of her very finest recordings. I am disappointed this disc is not better known.

Stutzmann’s smoky, luxurious timbre has always pleased me, and her timbre is ideal for the songs of Schumann and Brahms (but somewhat less so for Schubert, I think).

Stutzmann sings Brahms very naturally. There is no “over-interpretation” to be heard here, no artificial enunciation of German words, no coyness. Nonetheless, this is deeply-satisfying Brahms singing—it is as if Miss Stutzmann has known and loved and understood these songs since she was a child.

I suspect that some of the success of this disc is due to the fact that Miss Stutzmann was a student of Hans Hotter, who could sing Brahms as well as anyone.

Songs from Brahms’s entire career are represented on the disc, but it is the final offering that seals the greatness of this recording: Four Serious Songs, Opus 121, written in 1896 but not published until after Brahms’s death.

Miss Stutzmann’s performance of Brahms’s next-to-last composition—it was followed only by the Organ Preludes, Opus 122—is as fine a performance of Opus 121 as I have ever heard. It is as fine, in fact, as the celebrated, even legendary, recording of her teacher.

Every time Josh and I listened to this disc, we would play the Four Serious Songs a second and even a third time: the performance is THAT good.

As a songwriter, Brahms was the equal of Schubert, Schumann and Wolf, although he is not as widely-credited for his songwriting as those three composers. A disc devoted entirely to Brahms songs never becomes tiresome, which cannot be said of Wolf or Richard Strauss. Brahms’s emotional range was wide, his handling of texts very natural, his manipulation of the materials of music very subtle, his accompaniments apt and restrained but very imaginative.

This disc was pure pleasure.

Miss Stutzmann does not often perform in the U.S., and she is not as well-known here as she should be. She is a great singer, and a great artist, and I wish I could hear her often.

The Copland disc includes a performance of the complete ballet, “Appalachian Spring”, scored for full orchestra.

Within the last year, Josh and I have listened to the complete score with the original chamber instrumentation, and we have listened to the suite scored for full orchestra. With the Slatkin disc of the complete score for full orchestra, we have now heard three different versions of this quintessential masterpiece of American art music, and within a relatively short period of time.

Despite its widespread familiarity, “Appalachian Spring” is a stunning piece of music, Stravinsky-isms and all. Is there a greater example of American serious music?

Slatkin’s was the first modern recording of the complete ballet using the full-orchestra scoring, and it remains one of only two modern versions (the other is by Michael Tilson Thomas on RCA). Copland devised the full-orchestra version of the complete score in 1954 on the recommendation of Eugene Ormandy, and it is very successful (although seldom heard).

I think the Slatkin recording is flawless. The music-making is vibrant and full of energy, the playing is magnificent, and the recording is rich and clear. This disc is about as good as it gets, and is far superior to the more-well-known Tilson Thomas version. This is one of those discs practically all persons would enjoy if only they knew it.

There are three short couplings: an excerpt from a very early Copland ballet, “Grohg”; “Letter From Home”, a World War II miniature; and “John Henry”, a musical depiction of the mythic American figure. The latter two compositions were written in Copland’s purest “Americana” vein. The “Grohg” excerpt is an odd piece of German Expressionism, out of place on this disc, and represents a type of writing Copland was not to pursue.

This disc was issued in 1988, and is no longer in print. However, the individual performances remain available on various EMI reissues, coupled with other material.

This disc is one of the highlights of Slatkin’s work in Saint Louis.


  1. I don't share your fondness for Copland. I stopped listening to him about the time I turned 25. I never looked back. Everything he wrote sounds the same. His music is losing traction with the public. His music never caught on outside the Anglo world. I understand why.

    I had never even HEARD of the Methuen organ until I read this. I had to look it up. Not really into organs, but it sounds interesting.

  2. Many Europeans I know also do not warm to Aaron Copland. They consider his music to be shallow. I understand where they are coming from. I myself have a kind of love/hate relationship with him. I don’t find Copland to be as intellectually profound as the best European composers. I like “Billy the Kid” very much; but I wouldn’t care if I ever heard “Rodeo” again. I am greatly fond of one heavenly aria from “The Tender Land” (Act One: Mrs. Moss reminisces over her daughter’s graduation dress); and I think his scores to “The Red Pony,” "Out Town," and “The Heiress” are wonderfully inspired. But you can keep the Clarinet Concerto (I’ll keep the Piano Concerto), thank you, as well as “Grohg,” the “Lincoln Portrait,” (noble though it is).

    I do agree with Andrew about “Appalachian Spring,” which is probably Copland’s masterpiece. Unlike a work like "Rodeo," the ballet has proven to have a long "shelf life” with me: The music continues to captivate after many, many years of hearing it, in various forms and by way of different performances.

    If I only had to choose ONE work by this composer to live with, however, I would actually pass over "Appalachian Spring" for Copland’s Third Symphony. When I first heard the ballet some 30 years ago, I immediately fell in love with the score. Over time, however, that love slowly waned a bit, my unshakable admiration for all this work's invention notwithstanding.

    When I first heard the Symphony (Bernstein’s Columbia record, if I mistake not) in college, my heart thumped equally fast: It was love at first sound. For some reason, every time I hear the Third, which, admittedly is not all that often these days, I still incur the same deep emotional, if not intellectual, response that hit me on that first hearing, when I was but a teenager, despite the decades that have since passed. I am especially attracted to the first three movements of the Symphony; among those, my absolute favorite part of the whole work is the trio section of the second movement, which, along with the equally ephemeral closing bars of “Appalcachian Spring,” never fails – regardless of the performance – to affect me on some very deep, emotional level.

    It's something I can't really describe.

    The Third Symphony also seems to be “conductor-proof.” Even Bernstein and his miserably sloppy New York Phil couldn't wreck it. Of all the recordings of this piece, however, I think the composer himself did the best job in presenting it during the seventies, with the Philharmonia (or was it yet “New” then?).


  3. I do not think that Copland was a great composer, but I think he was a very fine minor one. His music was polished and sophisticated, and instantly-identifiable as Copland’s music and no one else’s. Can that be said of any other American composer of art music?

    I think the only American composers that are exportable are “popular” ones, Sousa and Gershwin.

  4. Do you have a recommendation for the Haydn? I'm singing it this fall with the KC Symphony.

    Thanks for your Brahms recommendations. I've enjoyed listening to them over and over. My former wife was in the hospital for five weeks earlier this spring; I put on a Brahms symphony almost every day in the car on my way to visit. They helped keep me sane.

    I've started on Bruckner now - very different.

  5. David, I am very sorry to learn your wife was in the hospital for five weeks. She must have been very ill indeed. I hope she is fully recovered now.

    A good, solid recommendation for Mass In Time Of War is a two-disc set on Decca with the Little Organ Mass, the Lord Nelson Mass, the Harmonie Mass and Mass In Time Of War.

    George Guest is conductor of Mass In Time Of War. There is at least one other conductor represented on the set--Neville Marriner or Philip Ledger, or perhaps both.