Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Orchestral Works 1 - Ballets
Fanfare for the Common Man (1942) [4.03]
El Salón Mexico (1932-1936) [11.14]
Suite from the ballet Billy the Kid (1938) [20.14]
Suite from Appalachian Spring (1943-1944) [24.23]
Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo (1942) [18.53]
BBC Philharmonic/John Wilson
rec. MediaCityUK, Salford, 30 June-1 July 2015

This is a very nice recording – and that’s the problem with it. Where’s the fizz?

There is more to Copland than niceness. Even the most popular works have an edginess and sharpness to them. In the Western works, such as Billy the Kid and even Appalachian Spring, there is a sense of frontier, exciting but also dangerous.

Listen, for example, to the very opening of Fanfare for the Common Man, recorded in its version for Brass and Percussion, rather than the full orchestral guise. It reveals very well the strengths and the weakness of the recording. A drum beats, then the brass enters. That’s it – no sense of anticipation. It is all well-played and beautifully recorded in warm Chandos Super Audio. It traverses the notes, but says little.

The same issues arise in El Salón Mexico. Everything is heard, the familiar tunes clear, but all very polite – there is nothing of the tawdry dance-hall that inspired the work. String tone is pretty rather than passionate – my note said, ‘Where’s the excitement?’ There were moments when I thought the work might catch fire, but it never did.

The three ballets are given in suite form. If we take Leonard Bernstein’s now elderly recording on Sony (SMK 63082) of the same suites, there is menace and energy: listen to the snap and drive of his Gun Battle and the Death of Billy. Here, the poor dear is gunned down politely, almost apologetically.

Something baffling is the title of the CD as ‘Orchestral Works 1’ – which implies a series. If this is to be comprehensive, then it is puzzling in two ways. All the popular, well-known pieces are on the first disc. It would be wonderful if the series were to include all the orchestral works – but completeness suggests that we should be given the full ballets — which are not that much longer than the suites, and splendidly championed by Leonard Slatkin, while Andrew Litton gives complete versions of Billy the Kid and Rodeo – with El Salón Mexico – on his recent BIS recording (review). It would be useful also to have the chamber orchestra version of Appalachian Spring; it is splendid, and gives an alternative view of the music to the no less lovely, but different, full orchestral version. The second puzzlement is that by giving all the popular works on a single disc, it might reduce the market for subsequent issues, which would be a pity, as there is far more to Copland than simply the composer of Western ballets.

The value of this is to someone who wants Copland’s greatest hits in a single, well-played and comfortable CD but there is more to him than this.

Michael Wilkinson

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