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Populist: Suite Billy Kid / Appalachian / Rodeo Import
The three Copland classics on this disc--Billy the Kid, Appalachian Spring and Rodeo--are all ballet scores, and from the very first bars of Billy, with its evocative depiction of the wide-open prairies, you are firmly in the territory of music that tells a story. But you don't need to follow all the ins and outs of each story to enjoy music which paints as vivid a picture of rural America as you could hope for. If the sprightly "Hoe Down" from Rodeo brings a splash of colour to concert programmes, the remarkable thing about so much of the music in these three pieces is how quietly sensitive it is. And while Michael Tilson Thomas does not hold back in wringing every last ounce of splashy razzmatazz, he is equally the master of introspective music which clearly demonstrates that you don't need to be loud to be a populist. The recordings were made in the San Francisco Symphony's home, Davies Symphony Hall. You couldn't hope for more authentic performances than this--more than 76 minutes of dyed-in-the-wool Americana. --Keith Clarke
This turn, certainly socially abetted by Copland's position as a gay Jewish New Yorker with heavy ties to bona fide socialists, was a felicitous one from an artistic perspective. Copland's earlier modernist music had shown a personal inclination to "white note" harmonies, simple rhythms, and transparent instrumental arrangements, a set of traits which transferred well to the new idiom Copland tackled with his opera "The Second Hurricane" and El Salon Mexico, still one of his most popular orchestral pieces. These technical characteristics work together well in an idiom slanted towards populist accessibility.
The three orchestral works programmed by Michael Tilson Thomas in "Copland the Populist" include his most famous and maybe his best score, "Appalachian Spring" (1944), and two works right behind it in terms of fame, "Billy the Kid" (1939) and "Rodeo" (1942). Tilson Thomas' typically relaxed interpretations are I think perfectly suited to Copland's style and, joined to skilled playing by the San Francisco Symphony and the excellent engineering Tilson Thomas as usual receives on his BMG sessions, makes for a perfect interpretation of the three ballets.
Tilson Thomas' "Appalachian Spring" is absolutely outstanding and by itself is reason enough to buy this disc. I compared the recording with the excellent one done by the composer and the Boston Symphony. Copland's own version is about ten minutes shorter, pointing both to Tilson Thomas' gentler tempi and the inclusion of a dark, disturbing scene with an itinerant preacher in the middle of the "Tis a fit to be simple" variations, a scene that is typically omitted. Is Tilson Thomas' interpretation definitive? I probably wouldn't use a loaded term like "definitive" but this performance is at that general level of perfection. I also compared the "Billy the Kid" with the still excellent version by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra and can say that I like both of them. As other reviewers have commented, Tilson Thomas takes a more contemplative and darker read on the outlaw's story. "Rodeo" is the least interesting of the three pieces contained here but is again played well.
If you want one Copland disc in your collection, this is it.
For comparison, I use the Bernstein/New York recordings from 1959/60 (CBS) and Tilson Thomas benefits from DDD sound. But the AAD Bernsteins are still worth hearing, and NO ONE has ever touched Lenny's "Buckaroo Holiday" or "Hoe down" for sheer sweep and driving tempo!
MTT's "Appalachian Spring" is the COMPLETE score, not just the 24 minute suite most recordings offer. It is nice to hear the sections restored from Copland's original chamber music score, but in his own complete orchestration for large orchestra.
I recommend M.TT/ San Francisco most enthusiastically. You will, also!
Listening to this disc has changed my mind on a great many things. In the past, I found the music for "Rodeo" a little too "folksy," as if Copland was throwing up a Norman Rockwell picture of the West. Listening to this recording has changed my view of the work to quite an interesting ballet. The version of "Appalachian Spring" is an orchestration (from the original for small orchestra) that Mr. Copland never published, and it may the music seem all the more new. The "Simple Gifts" music that Copland borrowed is treated far differently in this version than the more familiar orchestration. "Billy the Kid" was also a revelation for me.
The performances and sound are excellent. Anyone who already know this music will appreciate this disc.