Bernstein Century Copland Appalachian Spring Rodeo Billy the KidBernstein Century

Copland: Appalachian Spring – Rodeo – Billy the Kid – Fanfare for the Common Man

New York Philharmonic

Leonard Bernstein, conductor

Sony, 1997

Tracklist and more details

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No other conductor devoted himself to American music as Leonard Bernstein. His name is inextricably connected to this repertoire and his recordings of music by Copland, Barber, Harris and Ives are rightly praised as some of the best results ever achieved. The present album, collecting Copland’s three ballets and the Fanfare for the Common Man, confirms better than anything else the popularity these performances.

Aaron Copland’s ballets and Fanfare

Bernstein met Aaron Copland in 1937 while still a student at Harvard. The two immediately became friends. Bernstein later remembered Copland as «my first friend in New York, my master, my idol, my sage, my shrink, the closest thing to a composition teacher I ever had, my guide, my counselor, my elder brother, my beloved friend». These feelings of admiration and respect are accurately mirrored in this recording.

The ballets Billy the Kid (1938, composed for Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan), Rodeo (1942, for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo) and Appalachian Spring (1943–4, for Martha Graham) are three of Copland’s best-known works. They reflect the composer’s intention to create a true American musical idiom taking advantage not only of popular tunes (Billy the Kid echoes some cowboy music) but of geography too, as they range from a farmland in Pennsylvania (Appalachian Spring) to the wide open spaces of the West (Billy the Kid and Rodeo).

Leonard Bernstein Conducts Aaron Copland

If one think is true about this recording, it is that Bernstein conducts Copland’s works with sincere enthusiasm and affection. Despite their similarities, Bernstein has been able to highlight their differences with flamboyant orchestral colours and letting the music flow naturally. In all the works, the result is that of a dazzling, joyful picture of America.

Appalachian Spring

Bernstein’s connection with Appalachian Spring dates to 1946, when it was one of the few works he was allowed to choose for the programmes of one of his first concerts in Great Britain. Later, he performed it several times, with the New York Philharmonic (in 1961, 1981 and 1984) and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1982.

This is the 1961 recording of Appalachian Spring. In this performance, the composition is elegant and vibrant at the same time, with passages where lyricism prevail, as in the beautiful As at First – Slowly and in the suave Coda, and other where joy is effervescent, as in the charming, irresistible Fast. Overall, this is a touching love story, performed with sensitivity and tenderness. The bright orchestral colours add a touch of brightness and splendour that harmoniously contrast with the melancholy of the music.

4 Dance Episodes from Rodeo

In the 4 Dance Episodes from Rodeo, we find the same intensity and zest, but more carefree. Though some of the Dance Episodes are animated (the first and fourth) and others are slow (the second and the third), they share the same lustrous tone and Bernstein conducts them with clearness and passion.

Billy the Kid & Fantare for the Common Man

If, after having listened to Appalachian Spring and Rodeo, you thought that nothing could have surpassed them, it is only because the ballet suite from Billy the Kid comes last. Bernstein develops it in the only reasonable way: as a narration, with its grandiose panoramas (the three views of the open prairie, one quiet, the “nocturnal” second – dreamy, and the last – imposing) and colouristic and picturesque pictures. The one that stands out better is the Gun Battle, which is a vivid depiction.

Finally, the Fantare for the Common Man is a solemn and luminous ending for the recording.

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