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CD Review

Aaron Copland

Ballet Suites

  • Billy The Kid
  • Appalachian Spring
  • Rodeo
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
RCA Victor (BMG Classics) 09026-63511-2
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First of all, these are the familiar suites from Billy The Kid and Rodeo, not the complete ballet scores. This CD does feature, however, the full Appalachian Spring score, in its later orchestral version. Those issues aside now, one can confidently declare that Tilson Thomas continues to turn out recording after recording that demonstrate his absolute mastery on the podium. Without doubt, he is among the top two or three American conductors before the public today.

Here, he gives us a Billy The Kid that may be the best version yet. It surpasses, if only marginally, Copland's own with the London Symphony from the late 1960s. Tilson Thomas captures that cowboy-western idiom to perfection with elastic rhythms, a near-flawless balancing of instrumental timbres, and a seemingly intuitive sense for finding the essence and spirit of the score.

Nothing ever sounds excessive or pedestrian here. The Gun Battle sequence comes across with as much power and drama as I've ever heard, far surpassing Tilson Thomas's other great American rival, Leonard Slatkin, not only in this section but in most of the piece. It should be noted that Slatkin recorded the complete ballet, but when comparisons are made in those sections that are basically the same in the Suite, Tilson Thomas is clearly preferable. His Celebration after Billy's Capture comes across with verve and color in this quite zany dance episode, and the opening and closing sequences are riveting, as well. A splendid Billy then, maybe definitive!

Applachian Spring is also excellent here, though it would be hard to declare it the best. Again, Tilson Thomas is pretty much on target, but the slower episodes, while atmospheric may be a tad ponderous. Still, this is an impressive achievement. Rodeo is another effort that must be ranked at or near the top of the heap. Again, I favor this version over Copland's and a plethora of others I've heard. Buckaroo Holiday and Hoe Down are especially noteworthy in this performance. You can quite vividly picture the images the music depicts, and the crowd cheering added near the close of the middle section of the latter number adds to the jovial atmosphere.

The San Francisco players are in splendid form throughout and BMG's sound is vivid and full. Tilson Thomas's Mahler Seventh and Prokofieff Roméo and Juliet excerpts were first-rate achievements. This one must be counted with those.

Copyright © 2000, Robert Cummings