Copland the Populist: San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (RCA).
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Aaron Copland, Michael Tilson Thomas follows up his Grammy-winning Copland the Modernist disc with a recording of three irresistible Copland "American" ballet scores: Billy the Kid (1938), Rodeo (1942), and Appalachian Spring (1944). In his liner notes for the Sony reissue of Bernstein's New York Philharmonic recordings of these same works, Charles Michener asserts that the "stringent passion" of Billy the Kid "may owe much to the special sympathy that Copland, a homosexual, had for the social outlaw." Copland, please note, was also a Jew, composing rousing, life-affirming music at a time when millions of his homosexual and Jewish brethren were being exterminated. Ideal Copland champions Bernstein and Tilson Thomas both share Copland's dual "outlaw" status.
While Bernstein's performances come across as more brash, energetic, and glitzy than those of Tilson Thomas, Tilson Thomas' treatment more successfully highlights the moving, evocative passages of these works, especially Rodeo's pensive "Corral Nocturne." In Appalachian Spring, famed for its concluding exposition on "'Tis a Gift to be Simple," Tilson Thomas' slower pace in the "Very Slowly" movement more successfully contrasts it with the succeeding "Allegro." While this does not make one conductor "better" than the other, what definitely makes a difference are the RCA sonics on this disc. Though not demonstration-class, they're eminently smooth and listenable, with stunning percussion; they sound light years ahead of the Bernstein/Sony's glaring sonics.