Copland: Appalachian Spring (HDCD review)

Also, El Salon Mexico; Dance from "Music for the Theatre"; Danzon Cubano. Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic. HDTT HDCD361.

Leonard Bernstein was a huge fan of American composer Aaron Copland's (1900-1990) music and played more of the man's material in his programs than he did any other living composer. Needless to say, Bernstein's interpretations of Copland's scores are among the most authoritative of any, and for my money there are only two other conductors who stand alongside Bernstein when it comes to performing Copland: Michael Tilson Thomas and Copland himself, whose own recordings (Sony) are still probably my favorite. Nevertheless, the HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) remastering we have here of Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic from 1962 is among the conductor's very best Copland work.

The first item on the program is probably Copland's most endearing and enduring work, the ballet Appalachian Spring. He premiered it for a small chamber orchestra in 1944 and won a Pulitzer Prize for it the next year. Then, in 1945 he arranged the ballet score into the familiar orchestral suite we get here. The storyline for the ballet involves a group of nineteenth-century American pioneers celebrating the building of a new farmhouse in Pennsylvania. Some of the main characters include a bride, a groom, a revivalist and his followers, and a pioneer woman.

Bernstein makes the music come alive like almost no other conductor, capturing all of its beauty and passions. Maybe this is because the score itself, with its famous variations on the Shaker tune "Simple Gifts," has become such an important piece of Americana, and Bernstein himself is an American institution: They go naturally together. Perhaps Copland's conducting brought a touch more subtlety to the score in his London Symphony recording, but there's no denying the infectious qualities of Bernstein's enthusiasm. There's atmosphere here aplenty, a pulsating excitement, and a quiet dignity, all performed by an orchestra who seemed to have been born to the music. Lovely.

The next selection on the album is El Salon Mexico, which Copland completed in 1936. It's a tone poem in which the composer uses a number of Mexican tunes to simulate the atmosphere of a dance hall in Mexico City. Again Bernstein nails the excitement and color of the music, the nightclub and its denizens. Bernstein finds the raucous good fun in it, imbuing the music with a forward driving rhythm that highlights the vigor of the piece, yet with a hushed presence, too, that helps quantify its sweeter, darker corners. This is fun music, with Bernstein bringing out all its joys (and maybe a few of its sorrows; the conductor could sometimes wear his heart on his sleeve, although he never became maudlin).

Lastly, we get two brief numbers, Dance, from Copland's five-movement Music for the Theatre (1925) and Danzon Cubano (1942). These final selections fit in nicely with the other dance music on the program, and Bernstein has such a fine feeling for the idiom that you can't imagine anyone playing the music better.

Drawbacks? Not really. We get great music; we get classic performances; we get the best remastered sound these recordings have ever enjoyed; and we get a variety of formats and reasonable prices from the folks at HDTT. My only concern with the product is minor, and it's about the packaging. There are no track listings, no track times, not even an accurate account of the order of things on the album. For example, HDTT tried to duplicate Columbia's original LP cover art, but the cover art does not list the contents of the album in the correct sequence on the disc. The front and back covers list El Salon Mexico first when, in fact, Appalachian Spring comes first. For the record, so to speak, the HDTT disc contains 1. Appalachian Spring (24:55); 2. El Salon Mexico (11:03); 3. Dance from Music for the Theatre (3:19); and 4. Danzon Cubano (6.59).

Columbia Records made the album and released it on LP and tape in 1962; HDTT remastered it in 2014, and it sounds better than I've ever heard it. I confess I did not have the original recording on hand to make comparisons, but the people at Sony have put bits and pieces of Bernstein's Copland into various collections, some of which I did have available. To my ears, the HDTT remastering is clearer, cleaner, more transparent, more dynamic, more everything. In places it sounds a trifle bright or forward, true, but the highs appear nicely extended, with commendable sparkle, and the bass whacks have splendid impact. There is also more air around the instruments, more orchestral depth, and more hall resonance than I expected, with most often a full, round, smooth, lucid, and lifelike effect. The fact is, throughout the LP era I pretty much avoided Columbia products because so many of them sounded bad to me. This HDTT remastering shows how good the recordings can sound when somebody bothers to transfer them properly to disc.

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To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa