Copland: Billy the Kid Suite; Appalachian Spring; Rodeo

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COMPOSERS: Copland
LABELS: RCA Victor Red Seal
WORKS: Billy the Kid Suite; Appalachian Spring; Rodeo
PERFORMER: San Francisco SO/Michael Tilson Thomas
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 63511 2
As revealed in Howard Pollack’s recent biography, Aaron Copland’s interest in the ballet went further than a couple of entrechats. In such apotheoses of 20th-century dance as Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944), he captured the spirit not only of movement, but also of a nation’s ideal of Everyman. They overshadow Copland’s more complex yet no less deserving music, critics sometimes complain. Yet to few is given the gift of enshrining the Zeitgeist as convincingly as do these three remarkable scores.

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With the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas offers an exuberant reading of Billy the Kid. The orchestra’s woodwind, inspiringly engineered, capture Copland’s uniquely resonant scoring, as in the haunting sounds of ‘The Open Prairie’. If some of the greatest tone poems are, in effect, biographies, then this sad story of a misspent youth is one of their number, the vivid mimesis of its themes being woven into a symphonic form of which the conductor shows an instinctive grasp.

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By contrast, his Appalachian Spring, too fast or too slow by turns, seems to lack a controlling centre. The inclusion of the Revivalist’s dance, a dark and demonic pre-echo of the Adams of Shaker Loops, is a bonus. But orchestral brass – trombones at 12:30, for example – display a vulgar timbre. Back in the cowboy camp of Rodeo, conductor and orchestra are again in the saddle, as glittering and gay as many a rival version, though Bernstein for warmth and the composer for crispness narrowly have the edge. Nicholas Williams