COPLAND:  Billy the Kid.  Appalachian Spring.  Rodeo
San Francisco Symphony Orch/Michael Tilson Thomas, cond.

RCA 63511 (F) (DDD)  TT:  76:03 

This is the second volume of Copland's music conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas for RCA Victor Red Seal since he became music director of the San Francisco Symphony five years ago. The first, called "The Modernist," featured 1996 performances of the Piano Concerto, Symphonic Ode, Short Symphony, and Variations for Orchestra (Copland's 1957 orchestral version of his 1930 Piano Variations). This newer one, called "The Populist," was recorded in December 1999 and couples his three regional-rural folk ballets: Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944).

That last one is the real treasure here—Copland's 1954 orchestration (at Eugene Ormandy's request) of his original for 13 pit instruments, almost 12 minutes longer than the concert suite made in 1945. Completeness means that we can hear only the "Four Dance Episodes" from Rodeo rather than all, but these are the ballet's best music and Copland knew it when he set them as a concert suite. Schwann/Opus isn't going to help you sort through a plethora of versions of Appalachian Spring (Martha Graham's title for a work Copland called simply Ballet for Martha). Among "complete versions," for example, it lists Walter Susskind's London Symphony version for Everest, which is only the Suite. Since I haven't even a fraction of the umpteen versions still active, I can't advise about competition.

But I will say Tilson-Thomas' version is extraordinarily poetic without losing the through-line. If his tempi sometimes verge on stasis, he is too thorough a musician and too practiced a batonist to let the music go slack, or himself to wallow. His orchestra sounds like the best of America's second-tier elite: a certain thinness of string tone, a fine but not league-leading first trumpet, a few other practiced but average-sounding players put some distance between the SFSO and the Philadelphia or Boston (on a sumptuous night). But their playing is inspired in Appalachian Spring, and very good in Billy and Rodeo—not, perhaps, as vivid as the Saint Louis Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin on a treasured EMI coupling of the entire Billy and Rodeo's "Four Dance Episodes."

A BMG team from Germany produced and engineered these performances in Davies Symphony Hall, another of North America's problematic, much-modified, mid-to-late-20th-century concert venues (emblemized by Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center). It has been improved if not altogether tamed since a debut that the national press booed during Edo de Waart's tenure in the Bay City. The best new halls in this country since Lincoln Center arose are reputedly Seattle's recent Benaroya, the Dallas and Newark symphony centers, and the Meyerhoff in Baltimore on a good night. But BMG's sound here is satisfactory enough that I can listen with pleasure to MTT and his troops whenever I need an Appalachian Spring fix. Recommended.

R.D. (Oct. 2000)