Even though Aaron Copland turns 90 this week - Nov. 14, to be exact - it is fitting that the first of the above-listed CDs be titled "Music for Martha Graham." Not only was she the animating spirit for both "Appalachian Spring" and "Cave of the Heart" (aka "Medea"), but for the first time on records, to my knowledge, both ballets are being presented in their complete original form.
That not only means the original chamber scoring (13 instruments for "Appalachian Spring," 14 for "Cave"); it also means in the Copland a few more bars of music than you will hear in the composer's otherwise well-nigh-definitive CBS recording and, in the Barber, significantly more than in the seven-movement concert suite he later extracted.(The restored "Appalachian Spring" material may also be heard in Leonard Slatkin's EMI recording, but as arranged for full orchestra.)
I have long preferred the greater pungency of the chamber version of "Appalachian Spring," and now find myself feeling much the same way about "Medea." Schenck's tempos may be slower in something like the "Dance of Vengeance" than the more concert-oriented Barber and Hanson recordings. (Conversely his tempos in the Copland tend to be a bit faster.) But the intimacy and lyricism actually seem to heighten the drama, the piano in particular pounding out the rhythms with a terrifying resolution. And although Copland himself brings more verve to "Appalachian Spring," his reading cannot match the clarity of this one.
By contrast Menotti's "Sebastian," on the companion CD, is given not in its complete form but in the concert suite - more than enough for most listeners, I suspect. Overall I find Schenck's reading less pointed than Serebrier's of the entire ballet (now vividly transferred to a Phoenix CD). In other ways, however, it is more atmospheric in terms of its recorded sound and something like the lilt of the Barcarole.
Like Puccini before him, Menotti loves to pull on our heartstrings with a knife, and that same sentiment (or is it sentimentality?) is evident in this score. But so are the melodic gift and theatrical poignancy that have made both composers hardy perennials in the opera house.
Barber's "Souvenirs," on the other hand, is one of his least problematic scores, a charming and aromatic work whose neglect in both the theater and the concert hall remains a mystery. Again, Schenck's account seems to me less well focused than the non-New Zealand performances listed above, not to mention Serebrier's "Souvenirs" (which would have made an ideal coupling for his "Sebastian.") But the fragance still comes through, as it does in the appended Introduction, March and Shepherd's Dance from "Amahl."