Copland: Billy the Kid, Rodeo, El Salón México - Litton
BIS BIS-2164 SACD
Classical - Orchestral
Aaron Copland: Billy the Kid and Rodeo (complete ballet scores); An Outdoor Overture; El Salón México
Andrew Litton (conductor)
Having taken up the post of music director with the Colorado Symphony in 2013, Andrew Litton has chosen a highly fitting programme for the orchestra's first recording on BIS: the Wild West, its folk music, traditions and legends loom large in Aaron Copland's ballet scores Billy the Kid and Rodeo. The two works were the result of the composer's search during the early 1930's for a new musical language. Copland himself described his reasons for this as follows: 'An entirely new public for music had grown up around the radio and the phonograph. It made no sense to ignore them and to continue writing as if they did not exist. I felt that it was worth the effort to see if I couldn’t say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms.’ In the two ballets, this new direction can be felt in the immediacy of the music, but also in Copland's use of cowboy tunes.
A similar approach, but with Mexican themes, characterizes the slightly earlier El Salón México, inspired by a visit to a dance-hall in Mexico and the atmosphere he experienced there. Whereas these three works belong to the most popular in Copland's entire production, the opening piece, An Outdoor Overture, is something of a rarity – especially on disc. Composed in the same year as Billy the Kid, the overture was part of an educational campaign with the slogan 'American Music for American Youth' and its snappy rhythms and colourful orchestration will have made it as successful in its original purpose as it is here, as a curtain raiser. The Colorado Symphony is obviously enjoying itself in this all-American programme, as is its conductor Andrew Litton, who joins the revelry as honky-tonk pianist in the Celebration section of Billy the Kid and the Ranch House Party in Rodeo, before bringing the disc to a rollicking end in that ballet’s closing section, Hoe-Down.
Recorded in November 2014 at Boettcher Concert Hall, Denver, Colorado, USA, 24/96
Producer: Robert Suff
Sound engineer: Matthias Spitzbarth
Assistant sound engineer: Julian Pichette
Equipment: Neumann digital and analogue microphones; Grace Design m802 microphone preamplifier and high-resolution A/D converter; Sequoia and Pyramix digital audio workstations; B&W Nautilus 802 loudspeakers; Sennheiser HD600 series headphones
Post-production: Editing: Matthias Spitzbarth
Mixing: Robert Suff, Matthias Spitzbarth
Executive producer: Robert Suff
Review by Graham Williams - December 6, 2015
The striking photograph of the Colorado Plateau by Wolfgang Staudt that adorns the booklet cover of this Copland collection really encapsulates the spirit of the music on offer here and, as so often, BIS demonstrate that they are really at the top of their game when it comes to expertly matching music, orchestra, conductor and recording team to produce, as here, one of the most enjoyable Copland SACDs that I have heard for some time.
'An Outdoor Overture' which opens the programme was written in the autumn of 1938, following a commission from the New York High School of Music and Art, while the composer was working on his ballet 'Billy the Kid'. Alexander Richter, head of the school's music department, suggested “ a single movement between five and ten minutes in length and optimistic in tone, that would appeal to the adolescent youth of this country”. Copland duly obliged and the result is a work packed with melodic charm and variety that Andrew Litton and the Colorado Symphony deliver most persuasively with incisive playing and terrific élan.
The music for Copland's ballet 'Billy the Kid', his embodiment of the legendary 'Wild West', is most often heard (and recorded) as the eight movement orchestral suite that the composer produced in 1939, usually lasting around 20 minutes and available on SACD in notable accounts from Leonard Bernstein Copland: Appalachian Spring, El Salon Mexico etc. - Bernstein, Morton Gould Copland: Billy the Kid, Rodeo, Grofé: Grand Canyon Suite - Gould and Copland himself Copland: Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid etc. - LSO/Copland, but here we have the score in its entirety (32'23”).
The inclusion of the extra music heard on this recording is definitely worthwhile, especially the romantic Waltz (tr. 9) with its humorous bassoon and trombone solos. Gould also included this piece as an afterthought on his recording, but it makes an altogether stronger impression when placed in context. Copland's marvellous evocation of the open prairie that begins and ends the ballet is appropriately expansive in Litton's hands, though the 'Street in a Frontier Town' (tr. 3) doesn't have quite the bounce that Bernstein and the incomparable New York Philharmonic bring to it. Nevertheless, the alert Colorado musicians certainly show their mettle in the dramatic 'Gun Battle' (tr. 6), with its bass drum thwacks that really bring the spacious acoustic alive, while elsewhere their playing is attractively idiomatic.
With 'El Salón México' composed in 1936 Copland certainly succeeded in writing what he called “ ...the kind of brilliant piece that everyone loves”. The music depicts a popular dance hall in Mexico city that the composer first visited in 1932, and its use of Mexican folk tunes combined with sparkling orchestration and rhythmic ingenuity ensured its position as one of Copland's most popular and widely performed works. Litton's neat performance captures the humour of the piece, but again when compared with Bernstein's dazzling interpretation, the playing is just a fraction cautious, and Litton is marginally less successful in conveying the music's sleaziness.
The final item on this generously filled SACD (77'26”) is Copland's other cowboy ballet 'Rodeo' and like 'Billy the Kid' it is performed complete. The five sections of the score are entitled: 'Buckaroo Holiday', 'Corral Nocturne', 'Ranch House Party', 'Saturday Night Waltz' and 'Hoe-Down. When in 1943 Copland extracted a suite from the ballet he omitted the imaginative third section which opens with a lively unaccompanied honk-tonk piano solo (played here by the conductor, Andrew Litton) that amusingly contrasts with the slightly tipsy sounding clarinet melody that follows. Its presence here is therefore most welcome.
Litton and the Colorado Symphony deliver this composition to the manner born, handling the score's many tricky syncopations with a fluency that seems to come naturally to orchestras in the USA, while the quieter sections of the work, for example 'Saturday Night Waltz' are performed with playing of great sensitivity and tonal beauty. I have no doubt that Litton's exuberant and stylish account of 'Rodeo' deserves a place in the collection of any Copland aficionado.
The recording (24-bit / 96kHz) made at the Boettcher Concert Hall, Denver, is exceptionally fine even when judged against the usual high standard of BIS productions. Strings are notably silky, brass punchy and the wind sparkle within a sound stage that is is both wide and deep.
Copyright © 2015 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net
Review by Mark Novak - February 6, 2016
My own personal journey to the appreciation of Aaron Copland’s music has been a long one. In my formative years of immersion in the classical music world I became quite beholden to the Germanic models of symphonies and concertos – those big, bold canvasses that explored sonata form in all its fullness. Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and then Bruckner and Mahler became my standard bearers for excellence in Western music. So when I began to approach Copland’s music, I started with some of his formal essays like his Organ Symphony, Dance Symphony, Short Symphony, Music for the Theater and Piano Concerto thinking (perhaps naïvely) that his music would be an extension of that Germanic ideal. I despised all of it. Nadia Boulanger’s influence on Copland was strong in his early years of composing and it resulted in unpleasant, unlovely music. At the same time, I was aware of Copland’s “lighter” music but that never had much appeal to me because I saw it as lacking the gravitas of the Germanic ideal.
In recent years, my tastes have expanded considerably to encompass a much broader spectrum of compositional styles and flavors. While I still love that old Germanic ideal, I have explored many branches of composition including highly chromatic, twelve-tone and atonal works as well as shorter-form compositions that would include tone poems, overtures and ballet suites. I have yet to fully appreciate the Second Viennese School (and may never fully embrace it) and I continue to abhor atonal and aleatoric music but I have come to really enjoy the music that is on this fine collection from BIS. Copland succeeded in creating an American classical music idiom and these pieces (along with a number of others) are a great example of that unique and compelling style.
The curtain raiser, An Outdoor Overture, sets the stage for a great SACD. Andrew Litton sets a perfect pace for the music and the Colorado Symphony is top notch – my first exposure to this orchestra on disc. Billy the Kid is performed complete (instead of the more usual suite) and it, too, is magnificently played. The bass drum wallops from the “gun battle” (track 6) are quite exciting and well captured by the BIS recording team. Copland’s use of folk tunes is ingenious and makes the music all that more endearing. El Salon Mexico follows. Unfortunately, Litton adopts sluggish tempos in large portions of this performance that zap it of its Spanish inflections. Even still, the playing by the orchestra is excellent and the recording is terrific.
Last comes Rodeo in its complete score form. For Americans, it may be difficult to disassociate this wonderful music from the extensive use it got in the late 1980’s as the theme music for the National Pork Board’s ad campaign (“Pork – the other white meat!”). Maestro Litton is back in very fine form with this performance fully exploiting the rowdy, boisterous sections of Buckaroo Holiday while tenderly delivering the slower music of the Corral Nocturne. Litton himself performs the honky-tonk piano section that begins the “Ranch House Party” section of the ballet. The sound of the piano is quite clattery (yes, it is a honky-tonk piano) and it doesn’t seem to blend particularly well into the sonic fabric of the rest of the recording making me think that it was added at a different time/venue. The gorgeous Saturday Night Waltz section creates a diaphanous respite before the bluster of the concluding Hoe Down. Litton and band deliver this music at an appropriately brisk pace making for an exciting finish.
As I alluded to above, the recorded sound is terrific throughout save for the honky-tonk piano section. Producer Robert Suff and engineer Matthias Spitzbarth have delivered a vibrant, truthful soundstage with great dynamics and coherency. The bass drum thwacks, a Copland trademark, are captured with authority. I hope this team will carry forward with more of Copland’s populist music. Highly recommended.
Copyright © 2016 Mark Novak and HRAudio.net