COPLAND Billy The Kid. Appalachian Spring. Rodeo
Andrew Litton’s recent recording of Copland’s Billy the Kid and Rodeo with the Colorado Symphony (BIS, 1/16) was notable for offering the rarely performed complete versions of the ballets. John Wilson, in the first in a series of Copland’s orchestral music for Chandos, opts for the slightly shorter suites as well as that of Appalachian Spring. In doing so, Wilson comes into direct competition with conductors as idiomatic in this repertoire as Tilson Thomas and Bernstein, not to mention the composer himself. Bernstein’s accounts of the three ballet suites are magnificent and enjoy remarkably good sound for their age (1959-61). However, none of these recordings, not even BIS’s excellent multi-channel production for Litton, matches the spaciousness, transparency and weight of the sound on the new Chandos disc. It’s the finest-sounding recording to have come my way for some time.
Wilson’s performances are similarly impressive, and he secures superb playing from the BBC Philharmonic. The opening Fanfare for the Common Man – using the original scoring for brass and percussion rather than the version for full orchestra that opens the finale of the Third Symphony – has the sort of impact that’s guaranteed to bring complaints from the neighbours, assuming you can hear them knocking. The folksong-inspired El Salón México has tremendous panache in Wilson’s hands, the solo trumpet near the start sounding deliciously drunken and insouciant; but there’s also sensitivity and refinement, the lyrical melody for divided violins enjoying phrasing of beguiling warmth and tenderness.
The three ballets receive strongly characterised interpretations, as piquant and affecting in the slower passages as they are punchy and ebullient in the faster ones. The solo trumpet in ‘Prairie Night’ from Billy the Kid is a standout moment, here as evocative an emblem of loneliness as it is in Vaughan Williams’s Third Symphony, while the ‘Saturday Night Waltz’ from Rodeo unfolds with deeply moving warmth and naturalness. The poignancy and rapture of the quieter episodes of Appalachian Spring are also strongly conveyed. Wilson’s affection for the American folksongs that Copland uses throughout these works is obvious, and the precision and snap of the playing in ‘Hoe-Down’ from Rodeo, with its ricocheting xylophone and fanfaring trumpets, makes for a thrilling close. I enjoyed listening to this disc enormously.