The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music recordings: Sony releases series of American composers and performers including Bernstein, Barber, Copland, Ives and Williams

July 5, 2010
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s still the holiday weekend, when we celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks and barbecues and American music — popular, country and classical.

Fitting, very fitting.

Some recording labels even have special American series. Naxos’ “American Classics Series” is an excellent one I recommend for the variety of its music, composers and performers, from old classics to contemporary works.

And now Sony Masterworks has announced a series of reissues that seems good to unveil on the Independence Day holiday.

In honor of America’s Independence Day , Sony Masterworks is releasing “The Music of America,” a new series that celebrates five great American composers: Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives and John Williams.

I admit, I have some misgivings about including John Williams in that company, which is generally conservative and well established. (Hence the fact that these are largely reissues.) But I guess they have to sell records and he is popular enough to help underwrite the costs of the other, more classical composers. Plus, he has written some works in traditionally classical forms.

And there are so many other fine American composers – older ones from Edward McDowell, William Grant Still,  Joseph Collins to William Schuman, Elliott Carter, John Adams, Philip Glass, Joan Tower, Steve Reich, John Harbison and William Bolcom. And there are many others I haven’t named.

Still, one takes what one can – and the Sony performers and repertoire generally seem first-rate.

Here is a press release that also teaches you about the composers and music as well as the recordings:

“Sony Masterworks releases THE MUSIC OF AMERICA series which celebrates the enduring appeal of five great 20th-century American composers – Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives and John Williams, available now. In different and fascinating ways, their work captures both the grandeur and the intimate detail of American life and legend, in the language and the sounds of classical music.

“Taken from Sony Masterworks’ matchless catalogue of American music, each three-disc set contains the signature works of each composer, in definitive performances, often including the composer himself as a performer. These collections include some of the most popular and beloved classical music of our time – either in the concert hall or in popular culture – music that has shaped the way we hear and make music today, in every facet of our lives.

SAMUEL BARBER (1910-81, below): Millions of listeners who don’t know Barber by name do know his beautiful “Adagio for Strings,” which has become a kind of American musical elegy and also something of a popular hit since its use in the 1986 film Platoon. Barber’s work has an elegance and a sophisticated style that can seem almost European, but the vigor and invention in his writing, the profound yearning in his expression and his unusual gift for melody are hauntingly American.

“In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Barber’s birth this year, the new CD set includes landmark performances of his Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 1, Piano Sonata, a selection of his vocal music, and three different versions of the Adagio for Strings, with such performers as Vladimir Horowitz, Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern, Leontyne Price, Leonard Slatkin and Marilyn Horne. Also included is the first authorized release on CD of a 1935 recording of Barber’s Dover Beach for baritone and string quartet – with Barber himself as the baritone soloist.

“It also includes: Overture to The School for Scandal, String Quartet, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Second Essay for Orchestra, Medea’s Dance of Vengeance, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Hermit Songs, I Hear an Army, Nocturne, Sure on the Shining Night, Must the Winter Come So Soon? (from Vanessa), Give Me Some Music and Give Me My Robe (from Antony and Cleopatra) and Agnus Dei.

LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918-90, below): Throughout his career, Bernstein juggled his formidable gift for conducting the core classical repertoire with his desire, as a composer, to embrace everything, from symphonies and operas to Broadway musicals and Hollywood film scores. 2010 is the 20th anniversary of Bernstein’s death and Sony Masterworks celebrates him with this new set featuring a dazzling selection of hit songs from original cast recordings of his Broadway musicals West Side Story, On the Town, Wonderful Town and Candide, as well as two of his greatest “classical” works – the Serenade for Violin and Orchestra and the choral work Chichester Psalms – and other key works. Returning to the catalogue is conductor Leonard Slatkin’s recording of the complete Songfest, a sprawling orchestral song cycle that Bernstein wrote to celebrate the American Bicentennial. In addition to Bernstein himself and Slatkin, the artists featured include Hilary Hahn, Benny Goodman, Marilyn Horne and a host of Broadway stars.

Also includes: Prelude, Fugue and Riffs for Solo Clarinet and Jazz Ensemble, Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion (after Plato’s “Symposium”) and selections from Mass – A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers

“AARON COPLAND (1900-1990, below) created maybe the most distinctively “American” sound in 20th-century music, with his ballet scores Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid and Rodeo – works that caught, as never before, the vastness and rugged beauty of the American landscape, and the hope-filled spirit of the people. Copland’s music is a virtual signature of the mythic American heartland. At the same time, he was a native New Yorker whose ambitious modernism was refined and transformed by his studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger in the 1920s. This year is the 20th anniversary of Copland’s death and the 110th anniversary of his birth.

“The new set includes the three ballet scores, “Fanfare for the Common Man,” the Clarinet Concerto (heard throughout Ken Burns’ The War), Lincoln Portrait (Henry Fonda narrating) and a selection of Copland’s own film music. Many of the performances are conducted by Copland himself, but also feature Leonard Bernstein, Benny Goodman, Michael Tilson Thomas and John Williams.

“Also includes: Quiet City, An Outdoor Overture, The Promise of Living from The Tender Land, The Red Pony Film Suite for Orchestra, Old American Songs (Set One), Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and music from the movies The City, Our Town and Of Mice and Men.

“CHARLES IVES (1874-1954, below) turned American classical music upside down and inside out, and he didn’t care what anyone else thought – an American original, in the truest sense. Ives had serious training as a composer at Yale, but he used it to create a kind of music that only he himself heard: marching bands, folk songs, hymns and sentimental tunes, all woven into a unique, complex musical fabric that could be warmly affecting or astringently modern. Shortly before his death, his music finally found broad acceptance, and conductors such as Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas have become passionate advocates for it. Both are prominent in this collection, which includes definitive recordings of the Second and Third Symphonies, Three Places in New England, New England Holidays, From the Steeples and the Mountains and a variety of songs and orchestral works.

“Also includes: From the Steeples and the Mountains, Robert Browning Overture, Variations on America, Symphony No.4 (excerpt), The Unanswered Question and Central Park in the Dark.

“JOHN WILLIAMS (b. 1932, below) is best known as the dean of American film composers, a five-time Oscar winner for films such as Jaws, Star Wars, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Schindler’s List and possibly the most beloved American composer of orchestral music in his time. Williams has also become a kind of musical American poet laureate, writing stirring music for Olympic Games and Presidential inaugurations. Less well-known is his presence in the concert hall, for which he has created an impressive body of work while balancing a busy career in films. This collection brings together both worlds, with the first CD release of his Suite from Memoirs of a Geisha for Cello and Orchestra, written for and recorded with Yo-Yo Ma and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the inspiring “Air and Simple Gifts,” written for President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Also included are Williams’ haunting bassoon concerto entitled The Five Sacred Trees, the exuberant American Journey and a touching Elegy for Cello and Orchestra, also with Yo-Yo Ma. Williams conducts all of these recordings, as well as a selection of his signature film music from Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Born on the Fourth of July.

Which of these American composers is your favorite?

Which works?

Which series or recordings of American classical music do you recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.

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