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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
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2164 SACD [77:26]

Now this is a surprise; Copland has hardly featured in Andrew Litton’s discography thus far and a quick search of BIS’s catalogue reveals only a handful of albums in which this composer is represented. In recent years Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic have focused on Russian repertoire – Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky – with varying degrees of success. That said, their latest recordings, of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony and Rachmaninov’s Second, impressed me a great deal. Given that Litton’s tenure with that orchestra has just ended it’s no surprise that he’s now recording with the Colorado Symphony, where he’s been music director since 2013.

All of which augurs well for this new release. There’s competition, not least from Copland himself, but complete recordings of these two ballets - rather than the suites - are still comparatively rare. The main contenders in this repertoire are: Antal Doráti (Mercury); Leonard Bernstein (CBS-Sony); and David Zinman (Decca). Then there's Leonard Slatkin’s Detroit recording of El Salón México, Danzon Cubano and Rodeo, which could signal the start of a Copland cycle for Naxos (review). Speaking of El Salón México, Bernstein's CBS-Sony recording with the New York Philharmonic is simply unassailable. This classic performance is now available in a terrific new transfer from HDTT (review).

One could argue that Copland's two 'frontier ballets' are as much about big skies and rugged landscapes as John Ford's classic Westerns. In that sense it’s entirely appropriate that Litton sets the scene with An Outdoor Overture. Commissioned in 1938 by Alexander Richter, orchestra director of the High School of Music and Art in New York City, the piece was intended to kick-start a programme of ‘American music for American youth’. The overture’s opening fanfare, rhythmic verve and irrepressible energy are well caught in this new recording. The Denver band certainly play with gusto – the jaunty march is particularly uninhibited – but they’re remarkably refined as well. Copland’s LSO account (CBS-Sony) may have more zing and zest - he also makes more of that witty approximation of Camptown Races - but Litton's version is thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless.

Copland’s one-act ballet Billy the Kid, which chronicles the life and violent death of the eponymous outlaw, also dates from 1938. It’s a now vigorous, now tender celebration of one of America's most potent myths – that of new horizons in general and the Wild West in particular. Indeed, the piece begins and ends with a remarkably cinematic account of a wagon train lurching slowly across the prairie. Litton secures very dramatic and incisive playing throughout; he judges Copland’s stop-start rhythms to perfection and the solo trumpet’s take on the Mexican jarabe in Street in a Frontier Town is just marvellous.

And it just gets better. The woodwind playing in the Mexican Dance and Finale brims with character and the big moments pack quite a punch. The Colorado brass – unanimous, idiomatic – are especially impressive, but it’s the sheer transparency of both the performance and the recording that deserve special praise. I can’t recall such a velvety presentation of this score, or a more detailed one, particularly in the atmospheric Prairie Night (Card Game). As for the bass and side drums in Gun Battle they are simply electrifying; those fleeting echoes of the recently completed El Salón Mexico are ear-tweaking, too.

Ensemble is always crisp – witness the precision and point of Murder of the Prison Guard and Billy’s Escape – and momentum never flags. Litton calibrates the music's changes of mood and pace with great sensitivity; just listen to how he springs and shapes the languorous waltz from Billy in the Desert. I also relish the way he brings those big, surging string tunes into play. That indomitable train, still westward leading, brings the performance to a weighty, cymbal-capped close. The RCA engineers did a spectacular job for Tilson Thomas and his San Franciscans, but BIS's Mattias Spitzbarth and Julian Pichette have done an even better one for Litton. I suspect the fine acoustics of Denver’s Boettcher Concert Hall played their part as well.

At first I found Litton’s reading of El Salón Mexico, that imagined dance hall south of the border, a little disconcerting; it’s somewhat measured compared with Bernstein’s; it certainly doesn't have the latter's nervous energy. The upside is that the playing is so beguiling – and the recording so tactile – that I was remided just how accomplished this score is; in Litton's hands it's colourful and surprisingly elegant. My loyalty to vintage Lenny is unshaken – what volatility and louche character he finds here – but Litton’s lovelier, more affectionate reading has its own rewards.

The complete Rodeo, subtitled The Courting at Burnt Ranch, consists of five sections: Buckaroo Holiday; Corral Nocturne; Ranch House Party; Saturday Night Waltz; and Hoe-Down. The slightly abridged version - and the one MTT and Zinman have chosen - omits Ranch House Party. Litton gets into the celebratory mood straightaway, with a now strutting, now tender rendition of Buckaroo Holiday. The Colorado woodwinds make the most of Copland’s melting tunes, the brass his tipsy ones; as for those catchy rhythms they're superbly articulated. Indeed, all sections of the orchestra shine in this delectable opener.

The lonely cowgirl is centre stage in the beautifully poised Corral Nocturne, which Litton phrases with the utmost delicacy. Not only that, he finds a hushed loveliness here that his rivals can’t match. He also plays a mean honky-tonk piano in Ranch House Party, where the cowgirl attracts the attention of both the Champion Roper and the Wrangler. The clarinet playing here is just gorgeous and Litton keeps it all moving along nicely. Once again I was struck by the amount of telling detail in this recording. The Saturday Night Waltz has a wistful charm, a pliancy, that’s just ravishing and Hoe-Down has a welter of popular tunes that never fail to please. As ever these musicians are alive to the score’s every nuance and rhythmic twist; indeed, they bring a bounce, a joy, to their music-making that’s utterly irresistible.

MTT's account of Billy the Kid is high, wide and handsome. His is a wonderfully supple and varied performance that sounds especially good in RCA’s 2004 re-master. David Zinman’s Baltimore Billy is pretty good too – the recording has plenty of detail and impact – but he doesn't sustain the ballet's narrative quite so well. The San Francisco Symphony's virtuosity in Rodeo – their focus and fearless energy – is hugely impressive. More important, there’s an intense theatricality to MTT’s performance that I like very much indeed. By contrast Zinman's Rodeo is entertaining, but in this sparkling company it seems a little dull.

This new Copland collection grows in stature the more one listens to it; I doubt you'll hear more illuminating or idiomatic accounts of these American classics any time soon. The shortened Rodeo aside the fillers might swing it for some; MTT includes a fine performance of the complete Appalachian Spring and Zinman’s twofer offers some less familiar music on the second CD. Looking to the future I hope that Litton – recently appointed music director of the New York City Ballet – can be persuaded to record more dance albums with these charismatic Coloradans. Now that would be a treat.

Litton leaves his rivals choking in the dust; the same goes for BIS's exceptional recording.

Dan Morgan



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