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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Outdoor Overture [8:28]
Billy the Kid, Complete Ballet [32:42]
El Salón México [11:33]
Rodeo, Complete Ballet [24:43]
Colorado Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. November 2014, Boettcher Concert Hall, Denver, Colorado, USA
BIS BIS-2164 SACD [77:26]

The Colorado Symphony’s new Copland CD is jam-packed with goodies, many of them rarely heard or recorded. The Outdoor Overture isn’t too easy to find, and neither are the complete, uncut versions of Billy the Kid and Rodeo. These classic ballets are mostly heard in their concert suite versions, about twenty minutes each. The full version of Billy the Kid comes with 12-13 extra minutes of music, and Rodeo one-and-a-half additional scenes.

Already, then, this is an appealing release. Then you add in another factor: the terrific performances. Andrew Litton, a conductor whose long tenures in Dallas and Bergen have created a rich legacy of great recordings, proves as adept with Copland as he is with Gershwin and Prokofiev. The Colorado Symphony’s orchestral sound is very traditionally “American”, with bright winking woodwinds and emphatic, ultra-dazzling brass. Aaron Copland’s colorful scores call for, and receive, virtuoso solos from unusual instruments like the piccolo. The honky-tonk piano in the two ballets is played by Litton himself.

Neither Billy the Kid nor Rodeo is lessened by the addition of the “extra” music. In Billy, the bonus material is mostly slow and reflective, creating a bit more space between the brassy outbursts and fanfares for which the score is famous. As a result, you may find yourself appreciating an extra dimension of depth in the ballet and its composer. In Rodeo, the extra scene has a rambunctious saloon piano tapping out a dance tune, answered by a long clarinet solo. You could probably argue that it interrupts the momentum, but the music is so much fun that momentum is not a primary consideration.

Outdoor Overture is a short piece which combines all the Copland hallmarks of big, open sonorities, idiosyncratic melodies, splashy brass and big moments for percussion. The piece was written for children’s concerts but is in no way immature.

My colleague Dan Morgan had qualms about this performance of El Salón México, which is not the most exciting ever. By the way, I recommend Dan’s review for his comments on the music itself, too. This isn’t the thrillingest complete Rodeo, either: that would be the recent Naxos recording of the Detroit Symphony and Leonard Slatkin, which has a bit more outgoing “oomph” and was one of my 2013 Recordings of the Year but these performances are very good, and really much of the value is in Litton’s superb Billy the Kid. The Naxos recording is my favorite Rodeo ever, but Litton’s, with his Colorado orchestra in precise, eloquent top form, ranks alongside the excised suite versions recorded by Leonard Bernstein and Copland himself, which is no insult.

In short, as Dan Morgan wrote, this is a pretty essential recording for fans of American music, collecting a rare score with rare excerpts from two more scores, all in extremely good performances and fine sound. Let’s hope this is the start of a long series of Colorado/Litton recordings of American classics. Up next: Randall Thompson’s Second Symphony, please?

Brian Reinhart

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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