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CD Review

Aaron Copland

The Populist

  • Billy the Kid Suite
  • Appalachian Spring
  • Four Dances from Rodeo
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
RCA 09026-63511-2 76:30
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Raising the bar.

So there I was, taking my nephews on a CD shopping trip (where I let them pick out two CDs apiece from the inventory of their local Tower, although I made sure we started in the classical section), when I hear this absolutely incredible Billy the Kid coming over the store speakers. I hopped to the front desk to ask the manager who, what, and how much, and that's how I came upon this disc. I snapped it up there and then. Hearing the rest of it was even better. The local Tower has disappeared, but the disc remains available. I'd call this one of my picks of the year, if it weren't already several years old (my reviewing pile of discs doesn't seem to shrink).

So popular – indeed, so ingrained – has this music become, we have difficulty imagining a time when people ran from this music as Ugly and Modern. Here's an excerpt from Lazare Saminsky's Living Music of the Americas (1949):

A feeble score is the Appalachian Spring: music anemic and insignificant.… Copland cannot forget the coachmen's and wet nurses' dances, Pétrouchka's liveliest. His Appalachian peasants sound more like Appalachian Cossacks.… Now to the magnum opus, the loudly trumpeted Lincoln Portrait.… After a short-lived attempt at the grand line, the petit maître appears in all his nakedness. We see pitifully clearly what the new dress of the king is. It is the dress of a compiler whose loud trumpets try to herald an imposing creator; the dress of a master of small deeds who has the audacity to trade in things sacred.

The popularity of Copland's so-called "easy" scores rose in the Fifties, at least ten years after they were written, when Bernstein began to drum them into our heads through concert performance and through LP. Bernstein's own composing idiom derived from Copland (among others), and at least early on he regarded Copland as his artistic father. He made these scores live as no other had, investing them with a nobility and grandeur. Other recordings of the era, including Copland's own, lack the authoritative stamp of the classic which Bernstein put on the music.

I never thought I'd hear anyone better Leonard Bernstein in this repertoire, but, by God, Thomas has done it. For one thing, he yields nothing in interpretive punch and has at his disposal a better orchestra than Bernstein's New York Philharmonic. This comes out especially in the quiet, lyrical sections of these scores. Even those critics who disliked Copland's music tended to praise his soft orchestral textures, sounds – like that of the opening to Appalachian Spring – which instantly proclaim the composer. Thomas gives you not only the soft shimmer, but the constituent parts of the sound, clear and in perfect balance within the texture. San Francisco plays these moments with chamber-like sensitivity of ensemble and beautiful tone besides. Yet they yield nothing to Bernstein in vitality or power in the quicker and the "big-shoulder" sections.

Billy the Kid and Rodeo appear in their suite incarnations. We miss about ten minutes from the complete Billy and about three from the complete Rodeo. Appalachian Spring's another story. Instead of the familiar orchestral suite or even the relatively-familiar "original" chamber version (more on this later), we get an orchestration of that chamber version, which Copland undertook at the request of Ormandy, who recorded it for Columbia. Copland never published it, and Thomas's may be only the second recording. I consider the cuts from the suite significant, in that they radically alter the of the ballet. If you haven't heard the chamber version (a remarkable piece in its own right), these cuts may come as a shock. The work becomes less of a picture-postcard. Essentially, Copland excised all the darkness from the score. The chamber version restores some of this, as does the Ormandy orchestration, and that's all to the good. However, it's still not the complete, one-and-only original Appalachian Spring. In the published chamber version, Copland couldn't resist further tightening. As far as I know, only Andrew Schenck recorded the original score for Koch's "Music for Martha Graham" series (Koch 3-7019-2 H1). Samuel Barber's original score for Cave of the Heart (Médea), finishes the program.

Thomas's reading gives us an architectural integrity to the score that I, for one, never suspected. Oh, sure, there are the variations on "Simple Gifts" and the "my end is my beginning" afterwards, but Thomas shows us how certain motifs change throughout the work. The opening on the unison into that radiant quasi-bitonal chord, for example, has its anguished counterpart in the opening to the restored cut. Since that section "interrupts" what we normally think of as the variations, the brief return of "Simple Gifts" seems not only to lead us out of the shadow but to regard both the restoration and the return as a transformation of the ballet so far.

A fine, fine recording that moves to the front of the line for all three works. One of Thomas' best.

Copyright © 2004, Steve Schwartz