Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Copland The City

Naxos DVD 2.110231

A very substantial addition to the Aaron Copland discography, this was Copland's first film score and it led to his notable additional career at Hollywood.

It receives here the first modern recording of the music, which the composer surprisingly had not arranged as a concert suite.

The City was an unique documentary film by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke created for the 1939 New York World's Fair, its theme the contrast in living conditions and possibilities between a grim milltown and frantic city with the possibilities of a better life in a planned "new town", Greenbelt, Maryland. The score is unusual in its continuity and ironic commentary on the visual message, at its height in the city scenes, most especially commenting on rush hour traffic and hectic lunch breaks, the idyllic life near nature at Greenbelt counterpointed with beautiful music, maybe a little less arresting. But the music as rediscovered here would certainly justify a place in an orchestral concert programme.

This DVD is very much a labour of love and its "extras" are best seen first. The original film with Lewis Mumford's didactic commentary narrated by Morris Carnovsky and the music conducted by Max Goberman has a period quality, with the sound track of its time fully equal to putting across its uncommon quality within the genre; we found it riveting.

Next, see a short film made for the Greenbelt Museum, 2000, in which older residents (some of them had featured as children in The City) extol the virtues of this "garden town" which continues to be a desirable place to live and bring up families. Lastly there is a conversation with Joseph Horowitz which contextualises this ground breaking film of the thirties.

The new version has sharper, better contrasted visual images and a vivid modern stereo presentation of the score, an important example of Copland's more "popular" music reflecting his desire to reach an enlarged "new audience" in the thirties and forties. Conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez and new narrator Francis Guinan contribute to its success, the latter recorded deliberately "no louder than required for the words to be understood", thereby taking nothing from the force of the music.

Recommended unreservedly.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Virgil Thomson
The Plow That Broke The Plains & The River

Naxos DVD 2.11052

These salutary films about unthinking destruction of the environment, to terrible human cost, are equally worth while.

It was Thomson's The Plow which inspired Copland to compose The City. Thomson was a self effacing composer who forged a strong strikingly apt score, orginal for film music of the time for its economy, unoriginality and sparing orchestration, drawing on "an entire musical patchwork - - ineffably American".

The story of its creation is given in the generous accompanying notes and in the filmed extras, plus a recorded conversation with the composer who discusses matters of balance between picture and music, and between soloist and accompanist in concert. That is ideally achieved in these films with newly recorded music scores, though The Plow is definitely the better of the two; in The River the repetitive intoning of place names, States and tributaries of the Mississippi, is both a little too loud for the music and the narration not interesting for non-American listeners who won't connect with the allusions.

Excellent production and presentation, as with The City.