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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Prairie Journal (1937) [10:55]
Rodeo (Four Dance Episodes) (1942) [18:54]
Letter From Home (1944) [6:23]
The Red Pony - Film Music (Suite) (1948) [23:42]
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. Kleinhaus Music Hall, Buffalo, New York, 31 January, 1 February 2005.

Ah, the wide open spaces of Copland’s rural America. It’s a compelling sound-world, one that serves almost as a dictionary definition of ‘American music’. Rhythmic, exciting, poignant, lyrical, expansive and intimate, Copland’s ‘populist’ music seems to communicate something particularly wholesome about America. Popular it has proven to be, with dozens of recordings of Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Bill the Kid etc. filling the catalogue. Any new recording of such works, even at budget price, must offer something new to compete in an increasingly competitive market. This new Naxos offering fits the bill in terms of repertoire but falls woefully short in terms of performance and recording.

First of all, the positives. The disc gives us two rarities, Prairie Journal and Letter from Home, both composed for radio. Neither piece contributes much to our understanding of Copland or his music but both are pleasant enough to listen to. Anyone who knows the three pieces mentioned above will recognise the idiom. Copland himself recorded Letter from Home (featured on a three CD set on Sony SM3K46559) but Prairie Journal has proven to be somewhat more elusive. The performance here is decent enough, ignoring the occasional split note from the trumpet section. The recording, however, is so cavernous and soft-grained that much of the detail is lost. The louder passages suffer from a large amount of occlusion but it is the softer passages that come off worst. There is a wonderful section of string accompaniment that shows Copland’s rhythmic writing in the best and most subtle light. Here, however, it takes the ear far too long to pinpoint exactly what is going on given the huge amount of reverberation.

Rodeo, being the best known piece on the disc, is up against the stiffest competition. ‘Buckaroo Holiday’ features some nice solos, particularly from the trombone. Yet again, the sound blunts any kind of rhythmic impact, the result being a rather generalised impression of what should be vividly pictorial music. Compare this with the searing immediacy of Bernstein (Sony SACD SS87327) and you will hear exactly the level of detail and sheer, visceral excitement that is lacking here. ‘Corral Nocturne’ goes fairly well, although it does suffer from some questionable intonation from the brass, and the lower strings tend to dominate. ‘Saturday Night Waltz’ is again plagued by an inappropriate acoustic, but even that cannot excuse the rhythmically indistinct start of the waltz proper. In this of all places, Copland is trying to suggest innocence and intimacy, neither of which is remotely implied here. The ‘Hoe Down’ is fine as a performance, but once more let down by the recording.

In 1963, André Previn recorded a brash, exciting recording of The Red Pony. That recording is still available on a budget priced Sony compilation of Copland’s orchestral works (Sony SBK62401). Whilst the new recording doesn’t surpass it - in sound or performance - it is quite effective, bringing out the evocative qualities inherent in Steinbeck’s source novel. Again, the idiom will be familiar to those who know any of Copland’s more popular works and it is certainly not an inconsiderable piece.

Ultimately, however, neither the performances nor recording justify purchasing this disc unless you are desperate to add the two rarer pieces to your collection. For those simply looking for a recording of Rodeo, Bernstein is the benchmark. If modern sound is vital, then Slatkin (HMV Classics HMV5867212) offers not only great performances and sonics, but includes an extra ‘piano interlude’ not found on other recordings.

Owen E. Walton


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