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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
An Outdoor Overture (1938) [8:17]
Billy the Kid (complete ballet) (1938) [32:23]
El Salón México (1933-1936) [11:19]
Rodeo (complete ballet) (1942) [24:10]
Colorado Symphony/Andrew Litton
rec. November 2014, Boettcher Concert Hall, Denver, Colorado, USA BIS BIS-2164 SACD [77:26]
My first opportunity to hear this disc came just recently in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio when we were inspired by Dan Morgan’s review to make it a last-minute addition to our list of discs that day. We were greatly impressed both by the performance of El Salón México and also by the quality of the BIS recording. Now that I’ve had the chance to listen in detail to the entire disc I can report that those first impressions were fully justified.
An Outdoor Overture was written with young musicians and listeners in mind. Copland was asked to write it by Alexander Richter, the head of the music department of New York’s High School of Music and Art. The composer relates in his autobiography, jointly authored with Vivian Perlis, that “Richter won me over when he explained that my work would be the opening gun in a campaign the school planned to undertake with the slogan “American Music for American Youth”. I found this so irresistible that I interrupted my orchestration for Billy the Kid in the fall of 1938 to write the piece.” The result is a bright and breezy piece which I’m sure would appeal to the young –and to people of all ages. Litton and his orchestra give a splendidly unbuttoned performance.
El Salón México is a corker of a piece. It came about following a visit that Copland paid to Mexico in 1932 and in it he makes use of several Mexican tunes. The piece is full of zest and colour. I haven’t got the Bernstein recording to which Dan Morgan referred in his review of Litton’s disc though I do have the composer’s own 1972 recording with the New Philharmonia Orchestra. That’s pretty good – Copland was a good exponent of his own music – though I can just imagine the pizzazz with which Bernstein would invest this music. However, Andrew Litton does a great job. I love, for example, the tipsy bassoons and trumpet that we hear in the first couple of minutes. It’s a piece that manages to be earthy and sophisticated at the same time. This Colorado performance conveys the ambience and vitality of the piece irresistibly but the more sensitive passages are also handled well.
Recordings of Billy the Kid, the first of Copland’s three great ballets, are not infrequent. However, it’s more usual to come across the suite which Copland extracted in 1939 rather than the full ballet, as recorded here by Andrew Litton. In essence the suite omits four movements: ‘Mexican Dance and Finale’; ‘Billy in Prison’; ‘Billy in the Desert’; and ‘Billy's Death’. These are the movements that the composer omitted in his 1969 recording of the suite with the LSO. Leonard Bernstein, in his 1959 New York Philharmonic recording adds a shortened version of ‘Mexican Dance and Finale’. As an aside, that Bernstein recording was made not in New York but in Symphony Hall, Boston; talk about laying down the gauntlet to the opposition. Litton’s decision to record the full ballet score means that we hear about 13 minutes of extra music as compared to the composer’s recording of the suite.
In composing the score Copland used several old cowboy songs. It had been suggested to him that he might make use of some of these simple melodies but as the composer frankly admitted in the aforementioned autobiography, he was sceptical at first. But he got to work on the score during a visit to Paris. As he later wrote, disarmingly: “Perhaps there is something different about a cowboy song in Paris. Whatever the reasons it was not long before I found myself hopelessly involved [with the tunes.]” However, he decided against incorporating Home on the Range: ”I decided to draw the line someplace!”
The ballet illustrates episodes from the short, violent life of William H Bonney aka Billy the Kid. Copland was sure that Billy was a pretty simple, straightforward character so he made a deliberate decision to use simple, direct musical means. The result is a marvellous, inventive score. I really enjoyed Litton’s performance of it, right from the outset where, in ‘Introduction: The Open Prairie’ the ambience of the great open spaces is tellingly conveyed. ‘Street in a Frontier Town’ is full of lively bustle and colour while in the ‘Mexican Dance’ Litton and his players once more show their mettle when it comes to Latin rhythms. The percussion have a field day in ‘Gun Battle’; the BIS recording captures the bass drum and timpani with marvellous realism. The ‘Celebration’ after Billy’s capture is lively indeed; it seems highly likely that a few too many shots of whiskey have been downed in the saloon! ‘Billy in the Desert’ is a gentle easy waltz. It’s affectionately played here, making it clear that the omission of this number from the suite is a loss for concert audiences. ‘Billy’s Funeral’ is touching and then the music of the Open Prairie is revisited: long after the vibrant characters of the Wild West have passed on the timeless landscape that they populated briefly endures. This is a cracking performance from start to finish and I loved it.
Andrew Litton saves the best till last. Splendid though the other three performances have been the clincher is his account of Rodeo. Once again he gives us the complete ballet and the major difference between this and the familiar concert work, the ‘Four Dance Episodes’, is that there’s an extra movement. This is ‘Ranch House Party’, which is placed third. Right at the start of this number there’s an extended solo for honky-tonk piano. Cue Andrew Litton, saloon pianist. He plays a mean piano here – as we know he can. After his solo a blowsy clarinet solo takes centre stage to wonderful effect. This is a most entertaining movement and I can only imagine that the logistical issues of getting hold of a suitable honky-tonk piano to play with a symphony orchestra influenced Copland’s decision to excise it from the Dance Episodes.
The more familiar music is despatched with relish. ‘Buckaroo Holiday’ is full of zest and colour. There’s a terrific, boisterous trombone solo (3:17) which the trumpet answers in kind. By contrast ‘Corral Nocturne’ is dreamy and nostalgic while ‘Saturday-Night Waltz’ is nice and homely. Litton seals the deal with a fantastic ‘Hoe-Down’ which sweeps you along in great style. This Wild West party is a humdinger – and everyone’s invited.
There is competition. Dan Morgan listed a couple of versions of Rodeo in his review, though I’ve not heard these. Copland’s own 1968 recording with the LSO has the composer’s natural authority but it’s not as unbuttoned as Litton. In any case, Copland’s is a recording of the ‘Four Dance Panels’. That is also what Leonard Bernstein offers in his 1960 New York Philharmonic recording. That’s a scintillating performance – ‘Hoe-Down’ is especially exciting. However, Litton’s performance can more than hold up its head in such exalted company and he offers more music and is recorded in significantly better sound.
Frankly, I see no reason to hesitate. If, like me, you love Copland’s music – and has any other composer better invoked in music the Great American Outdoors? – then this disc is an essential purchase. As far as I can remember I’ve only heard the Colorado Symphony once before. That was in a 2005 recording of Roy Harris symphonies conducted by their then-Music Director, Marin Alsop (review). That was billed as the start of a complete Harris symphony cycle but, sadly, I don’t think any further volumes have yet materialised. The orchestra sounded in very good shape then and now, nearly a decade later, it’s also in very fine fettle. The playing here is razor-sharp – so important in scores like these – but when refinement is required this orchestra can deliver just as well. When he was with the Bergen Philharmonic Andrew Litton recorded quite a lot of Russian music. Now that he is established in Denver I hope that BIS will get him to record more American repertoire. On the evidence of this recording I’d love to hear him and the Colorado Symphony tackle Copland’s Third Symphony and Appalachian Spring.
As we discovered in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio the sound that BIS have achieved on this SACD is tremendous; it’s rich, detailed and packs a real punch. I obtained equally good results on my own equipment. The notes by Dr Richard E Rodda are very good.
Andrew Litton brings the Great American West vividly to life here. Saddle up, mosey on down to your record store - and enjoy.