Copland: Orchestral Works I (SACD review)

Fanfare for the Common Man, El Salon Mexico, and Suites from Billy the Kid, Appalachian Spring, and Rodeo. John Wilson, BBC Philharmonic. Chandos CHSA 5164.

So many Copland albums seem to be coming my way, I had to stop and look at this latest disc to see if it was the composer’s birthday or anniversary or something. Nope, just coincidence, I guess. In any case, this one from conductor John Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic contains just about every familiar thing Copland wrote, if often in small chunks (suites). It’s all quite pleasant and nicely recorded, if perhaps a bit redundant.

The first item on the agenda is Fanfare for the Common Man, an appropriate place to start for a composer who wrote about common folks. Copland wrote it in 1942, inspired by a speech by then Vice President Henry Wallace and urged on by conductor Eugene Goosens. The music makes a good concert opener, a sort of overture for the rest of the program. Wilson takes the Fanfare at a rather slower gait than I’m used to hearing, having listened to Copland’s own recording with the LSO for many years. For me, therefore, Wilson’s take on the subject seemed a bit ponderous.

Next we get El Salon Mexico, which the composer wrote between 1933 and 1936 after visiting a spirited nightclub in Mexico called “El Salon Mexico.” Copland fills the work with an abundant variety of tunes derived from Mexican folk music. Here, Maestro Wilson lights things a bit brighter, starting slowly and building up a fine, colorful atmosphere by the music’s end.

John Wilson
After that is an eight-movement suite from the ballet Billy the Kid (1938), which Copland wrote for the American Ballet Caravan (the predecessor of the New York City Ballet). Even though the Brooklyn-born composer had little interest in what he thought of as “cowboy music,” he studied a book of cowboy songs and off he went. Most important for us today, the tunes gave Copland the inspiration to write the simple, straightforward music he had been previously seeking. Again, Wilson provides a nicely crafted, thoroughly persuasive account of the music, increasing incrementally in intensity and creating a believable sensation of time and place. While I suppose some listeners might find a slight dissatisfaction that Wilson doesn’t produce a livelier, more-exciting mood at times, I never found the music wanting for vividness or character. What’s more, throughout all of the music, the BBC Philharmonic play with a sonorous authority.

Then we find a seven-movement suite from Appalachian Spring (1943), the ballet Copland wrote for the choreographer and dancer Martha Graham. The plot, as it is, involves the celebration of American pioneers after building a new farmhouse in Pennsylvania. Some of the main characters include a bride and groom, a preacher and his flock, and a pioneer woman. Of all the music Wilson gives us on the program, he’s probably at his best in Appalachian Spring. He not only captures the joy of the festivities but the passion and tenderness of the participants. The familiar “Simple Gifts” melody never sounded lovelier.

The program concludes with four dance episodes from Rodeo, a kind of follow-up ballet to Billy the Kid. If anything, Rodeo became even better known and better loved than Billy, but I would guess most of us enjoy them equally. In any case, Rodeo makes an appropriate bookend to the opening Fanfare, offering picturesqueness, enthusiasm, and a good, old-fashioned Western country air. Wilson makes the most of it.

Producers Ralph Couzens, Mike George, and Brian Pidgeon and engineer Stephen Rinker recorded the album at MediaCityUK, Salford, in June and July 2015. They made the disc in hybrid SACD so it will play two-channel and multichannel from the SACD layer and regular two-channel stereo from the CD layer. I listened in two-channel SACD.

There is a pleasantly realistic ambient bloom to the sound, evident even in the two-channel mode. Combined with a good sense of depth as well as width, the effect is quite lifelike. Loudest notes appeared a mite congested to me, even a tad harsh, but it is of minor note. Dynamics and frequency range also appear extended, so there is really little to complain about in the area of sonics.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:


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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.

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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