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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Billy the Kid: Suite (1938) [20:10]
Billy the Kid: Waltz (1938) [4:09]
Rodeo: Suite (1942) [21:10]
Ferde GROFÉ (1892-1972)
Grand Canyon Suite (1929-1931) [32:20]
Morton Gould and His Orchestra
rec. Manhattan Center, New York City, 1-2 October 1957 (Copland), 19 February 1960 (Grofé)
RCA RED SEAL (SONY BMG) SACD 82876 679042 [78:10]

This recording comes on a hybrid SACD disc which is compatible with standard audio CD players. As I have only a standard audio CD player, I cannot review the SACD portion of the disc, only the audio CD part.
The bulk of the disc is taken up with suites from two of Copland’s most well known ballet scores.
The opening movement of the Billy the Kid suite (The Open Prairie) sets the scene beautifully, and this is probably where the recording is at its best, lending a wide open and very spatial feeling to the music. This feeling continues into ‘Street in a Frontier Town’ and ‘Mexican Dance and Finale’ where the tempo and texture build as the scene fills with people. A lovely atmospheric ‘Prairie Night’ scene is followed by a tense and increasingly frenzied ‘Gun Battle’ scene in which the percussion section come to the fore with some excellent drum and xylophone playing. The following scene (Celebration) is probably the one where I would have favoured a closer feel to the recording, such as that provided by the Bernstein/NYPO recording which is slower and allows Copland’s spiky orchestration to come through fully, in particular the piano, which is somewhat lost at times in this recording. However, it really doesn’t detract too much from what is still an excellent performance. The last two scenes (‘Billy’s Death’ and ‘The Open Prairie (reprise)’) bring back the feeling of the opening and bring the work to a fitting climax.
Following the suite is an extra track, the Waltz, which does not form a part of the orchestral suite, but comes into the ballet score as part of the dream sequence. This is a lovely and melodious piece which brings out the best of the orchestra in some sensitive and delicate playing, although there is no more than a passing reference to its inclusion in the booklet and this does not really justify its inclusion as more than a filler.
This is followed by the suite from the ballet, Rodeo. The first piece (Buckaroo Holiday) is the longest and is very rich and varied in texture and feel, requiring some excellent individual playing from various members of the orchestra. We get this and more, as the natural echo in the ballroom studio is used to enhance the feel of the music - I particularly liked the way that the trumpet and trombone solos were allowed to fully fade away at the end of each phrase. The ‘Corral Nocturne’ is beautifully played where the emphasis is very much on the dreamlike texture.
This is followed by a second ‘extra’, ‘Honky Tonk Interlude’, which on this occasion comes in the middle of the suite, and is enhanced by the fact that Morton Gould has employed a genuine honky-tonk piano together with out of tune piano strings and all. It is really for the listener to decide if this inclusion enhances from the recording or detracts from it. I don’t feel that it is too out of keeping with the spirit of the work as a whole, but perhaps it ought to have been added at the end as an ‘extra’, rather than being inserted into the middle of the suite.
The ‘Saturday Night Waltz’ is a slow and languid affair followed by a suitably lively ‘Hoe-Down’, which brings out all of the movement’s natural exuberance.
Overall, the recording of the two Copland suites is superb. The performances are excellent, both technically and artistically. For me, the greatest triumph is that they capture the spirit of the pioneering ‘Wild West’ so thoroughly, and clearly demonstrate Morton Gould’s deep appreciation of the work and its spirit.
The final work on the disc is the Grofé ‘Grand Canyon Suite’, which is cinematic in its scope and the orchestra on this recording is superb. In the last two pieces, use is made of an echo chamber in re-recording parts of the score (the two trombones in ‘On The Trail’ are also played through megaphones in the studio!).
The first piece (Sunrise) is suitably atmospheric and spacious, while Painted Desert uses the percussion section to great effect. I was very impressed with the use of the orchestra in On The Trail - Morton Gould here uses the tempo of the work to great effect, the slightly awkward duplets of the temple blocks against the general 6/8 giving the work a comic feel, which is exploited just enough, but not so much that it feels vulgar. The horn section dominates in Sunset, in the recording, the horn players are separated throughout the studio to give a real feeling of sound echoing as the orchestra swells to a climax and then fades. The final piece (Cloudburst) brings back the gentle meandering feel of the opening piece before a storm breaks, represented in this work swooping tremolando strings, huge piano runs and plenty of percussion.
Overall, the performance really does bring some verve into the three works outlined, the two ballet suites are spacious and bring out Copland’s very individual style and use of the orchestra, while in the Grofé suite the cinematic scope of the work is brought to the fore. I would recommend it very highly to anyone interested in these works.
Euan Bayliss


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