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Aaron COPLAND (1900-90)
Billy the Kid Suite [20:37]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No.9 in e minor, Op.95 ‘From the New World’ [41:46]
National Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. live 6-9 June, 2019, Concert Hall, John F Kennedy Center, Washington, DC. DDD/DSD
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from hyperion-records.co.uk.
NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA NSO0001 SACD [62:29] 

It’s very good to see the National Symphony Orchestra back on record and even better to welcome their first recording on their in-house label. An auspicious start it is, too, with Gianandrea Noseda at the helm in these live performances. Whether it was wise to include yet another New World Symphony is another matter.  Noseda has already recorded the Dvořák Piano Concerto and Violin Concerto for Chandos (CHAN10309), but not, I think, Copland. Indeed, he apparently joked that the orchestra knew the music better than the conductor, yet he opened his first season with the orchestra, in 2017, with the little-known Lincoln Portrait. What small appeal that piece had for me disappeared long ago when Margaret Thatcher recorded it in her usual peremptory manner. (Thankfully, no longer available.)

These recordings were made at the close of Noseda’s second season with the NSO and the orchestra more than made up for any lack of Copland familiarity on their conductor’s part, from the wide-open spaces which open and close the suite to the very different sections which come between. In any case, the composer himself was largely – and successsfully – winging it in his Western music. A city boy from an immigrant family, he nevertheless established himself as the man to turn to for evocations of the West.  His Third Symphony vies with that of Roy Harris for the title of greatest Amercan symphony.

The Washington Post reviewer was impressed by the Copland and I’m certainly not going to disagree, though I’ve already seen one UK-based review which was less enamoured. I liked it so much that I’d like to hear more Copland from Noseda – perhaps the Third Symphony or Appalachian Spring? But not, please, the Lincoln Portrait.

So why do I hesitate? Partly because I think that Billy the Kid works best in an all-Copland context and partly because there’s a splendid recording of the complete ballet, not just the suite, with the less familiar but fascinating ballet Grohg – and all at a lower price, from Leonard Slatkin with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (Naxos 8.559862 – review review review). That recording, which earned a ‘Recommended’ tag, comes on CD for around Ł7.50 or as a lossless download, with pdf booklet for around Ł5. Why pay more?

The New World Symphony may seem the ideal companion piece for an all-American programme. With so many first-rate performances out there, however, this very good live account is not special enough. I need only mention Rafael Kubelík (Nos. 8 and 9, DG Originals 4474122, mid-price, or complete symphonies DG 4631582, budget price) and Karel Ančerl (Supraphon Gold SU36722, mid-price, with In Nature’s Realm and Othello review) to indicate why the NSO recording must remain a (very) good also-ran.

In every respect, that is, except for the truly excellent recording quality. Both Kubelík and Ančerl come up very well for their age, but can’t match the 24-bit download of the new recording, which should also apply to the SACD. Even Sir Charles Mackerras on a more recent Supraphon recording – another favourite – is outshone by the 24-bit NSO  sound. (Nos. 8 and 9 SU38482 or Life with Czech Music, Smetana and Dvořák SU40412, 6 CDs, around Ł33).

Those who dislike applause on live recordings will be pleased to note that NSO don't include it – that’s neither a plus nor a minus for me.

I understand that Noseda and the NSO are about to record all the Beethoven symphonies. With so many new releases and reissues out already or pending for this anniversay year, that might be an even tougher nut to crack. Meanwhile, this first release has much to offer in Copland; it’s just a shame that there are so many even better recordings of the New World Symphony.

Brian Wilson



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