This disc is a triumph for Leonard Slatkin. He has mellowed over the years and some of his recent remakes of music he recorded back in his heyday with the St. Louis Symphony (and others) have been a bit low-key and not nearly as distinctive as his best from years past. This Copland disc is another matter.
Having already recorded the ballets very successfully with the St. Louis for EMI, in the mid-80s, one wonders why he's doing them again. However, he continues his championship of presenting the complete versions, rather than the ubiquitous suites. And hearing them again, one wonders with amazement why the suites have persistently been preferred and played over the decades, when so much extra, worthwhile music is to be heard in the complete versions. Shockingly, not even Copland recorded his complete scores!
Slatkin's previous Naxos release, also with his Detroit Symphony, gave us the complete Rodeo along with a wonderful Dance Panels. Splendid stuff, but, alas, the Rodeo was somewhat lacking in sheer verve and energy, especially when compared to his more extrovert St. Louis recording for EMI. But Naxos's inclusion of the Dance Panels more than makes up for any shortcomings in the Rodeo.
This new disc gives us the complete Appalachian Spring, along with Slatkin's first recording of the Hear Ye! Hear Ye! ballet. What an absolutely glorious score this is! Rarely in this music would you guess that this is Copland. Indeed, it is one of Copland's best and most uniquely original scores, with cinematically descriptive story-telling scenes, complete with the pounding of the judge's gavel and real gunfire. Slatkin brings a sweeping grandeur to the piece, making it an orchestral spectacular.
Recordings of this ballet are rare. Oliver Knussen recorded it 20 years earlier for Argo, and that is a treasured CD (coupled with the equally splendid Grogh). Knussen directs the London Sinfonietta and it is crisper, livelier, and more sharply characterized, but also smaller-scaled, than Slatkin's. Both approaches are equally enjoyable and valid, although I prefer the drama that the full Detroit Symphony adds to the piece - replete with potent bass drum contributions.
The complete Appalachian Spring adds about 15 minutes additional music to the familiar suite. There are extra snippets here and there, and slightly extended scenes, etc., throughout. The majority of extra music, however, comes at the 24' minute mark, just after the initial introduction and set of variations on Simple Gifts, and just before the full orchestra takes it up in the final peroration. We hear about 10 minutes of completely new/unfamiliar music - most worthwhile. And there is a bit of extension to the final, soft ending section, bringing the piece to an even more satisfactory conclusion. Slatkin brings an easy, songful grace to this piece, clarifying textures in a way that brings much of the intimacy of the original version for 13 instruments, yet retaining all the color and power of the full orchestra. I found it completely enjoyable from beginning to end, particularly as we get to hear extra measures of music every so often along the way.
There is very little less-than-stellar news to report. The Detroit Symphony plays very well, but they are still not quite world-class (they weren't under Dorati or Jarvi either). Some of the principal wind players are just not quite extraordinary. And, though the strings are full and warm, as recorded the violins have a bit of a "sheen" over the top of their tone which is not quite natural. And regretfully, the entire Appalachian Spring (37+ minutes) is given just one track. That kind of thing should never happen, especially when the piece has so many individual sections to it.
Other than these quibbles, the recorded sound is wide-open and full, capturing the splendid acoustic. But, in all fairness, this Naxos cannot quite match the overwhelmingly spectacular sound that Decca achieved in the early 80s when Dorati was recording with them, before they moved into their newly built Orchestra Hall. Indeed, those Copland and Gershwin/Grofe CDs are among the most spectacular orchestral recordings ever heard.
All in all, this CD is most rewarding. And for those not familiar with the complete Appalachian Spring and/or the rare Hear Ye! Hear Ye! ballet, this is an imperative purchase. Very highly recommended.