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The Populist (suites from Billy the Kid and Rodeo, plus the complete ballet Appalachian Spring)
Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony
RCA Red Seal 09026635112 [76: 32]

It is a strange quirk of musical history that the sound of the American West was invented by an Easterner half-a-century after the event. Or rather, reinvented, because today when we think of The West we think not of cowboy folk songs and 'Negro' spirituals, but of the music of Aaron Copland, specifically the three ballet scores represented on this album, and of the film music which followed. There are literally dozens of albums which have presented performances of various combinations of these three scores, and here we are offered the familiar suites from Billy the Kid and Rodeo, plus the complete ballet Appalachian Spring.

At the recent Copland Centenary concerts given in London conductor Leonard Slatkin said that by only hearing the suites we miss out on a lot of good music. He emphasised that this is the case with Billy the Kid, where in the suite we are deprived of the entire last third and ending to the story. After which Slatkin went on to conduct a complete performance of ballet. Given that the complete Billy the Kid runs around 35 minutes, and with the preponderance of recordings of the suite, I can't help but feel that this album has missed the opportunity to couple the complete Billy the Kid with the complete Appalachian Spring, leaving Rodeo for another time. Whatever might have been, the centrepiece, literally and figuratively, is a comparatively rare opportunity to hear the complete orchestral version of Appalachian Spring, and so fine is it that afterwards I doubt you will not want to go back to the suite very often. Indeed, so good are Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony that together they have produced versions of these Copland classics to rival Leonard Bernstein. My reservation above apart, this is a superb release.

The disc opens with Billy the Kid, here a 21 minute single movement suite. As befits music for a killer, there is a darker colouring than often to The Open Prairie (the disc does not give the original titles), almost a touch of film noir which suggests both grandeur but also steel in the soul. There is something of Herrmann about the ferocity Slatkin brings to the brass, not allowing us to forget that within this celebration of the frontier is a story of psychopathic, cold-blooded murder. It is a contradiction at the heart of America's legend of itself which is never entirely satisfactorily resolved in this essentially romantic music.

Rodeo is 19 minutes in four movements, and being a more wholesome story is able to deliver less guilty pleasures. This is dance music in every sense, incorporating a 'Saturday Night Waltz' and a 'Hoe Down' among other folk and folk inspired material. Thomas brings forth a lovely 'Corral Nocturne', which although it sounds like a folk melody is original Copland, while the finale, the 'Hoe Down' is as boisterous, infectious and exhilarating as any version put on record. Contributing to the joyful effect is the dynamic and clear recording. Instruments are very well defined in the soundstage, and where required, for example, the muted trumpet solo midway through Billy the Kid, there is a good acoustic sense of distance and open space.

Appalachian Spring lasts for 35 minutes in a single movement, rather than the 20-22 of the suite. Of course all the familiar material is here, but in being spread over a greater time span, and interspersed with music of significant unease and conflict, takes on a wider portrait of community struggle. There is a feeling here that the victories really do have to be won, such that when the famous 'big tune', the Shaker melody 'Simple Gifts' expands through a series of neo-Baroque variations to an epic statement with triumphant brass we are truly uplifted. Thomas takes his time, unfolding his Americana with all the skill of a great musical dramatist who knows exactly how to pace his story. There is a bigger and darker climax too, music which in its menace allows for an ultimately more rewarding, for harder earned, epilogue. Populist or otherwise, this music is at the very heart of modern America, leading almost directly to such iconic scores as The Big Country by Jerome Moross and The Magnificent Seven by Elmer Bernstein. The suite eliminates the more 'filmic' parts of the work, but listening to the finale third the influence is clear on every (good) action film score we hear today. On this evidence, more really is more, and as the advertising moguls might say, unless you've heard Appalachian Spring complete you haven't heard Appalachian Spring at all!

Whether an admirer of Copland, Americana, or the wide open spaces of Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams, this is an essential recording which should please a wide musical constituency. One of the finest albums of the year.

Gary S. Dalkin

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