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 Recording of the Week  John Wilson conducts music by Aaron Copland

Today sees the release of the first volume in a new series of Copland’s Orchestral Works on Chandos, with John Wilson conducting the BBC Philharmonic (a new partnership, this, at least on disc –Wilson’s residency with the orchestra last year, shortly before these recordings were made, was a roaring success) in a programme centred around ballet music: the suites from Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring, the Four Dances from Rodeo, plus El Salón México and Fanfare for the Common Man.

John Wilson
John Wilson

I recall Chris and I both raising eyebrows of pleased surprise when we first found out that Wilson was to be at the helm for this project: the Gateshead-born conductor’s become a household name for his glorious technicolor recordings of the great stage-and-screen musicals of the mid-twentieth century, often painstakingly reconstructed from short scores and many hours of arduous transcription of the soundtracks and performed by his own hand-picked orchestra of players from jazz, classical and Broadway/West End backgrounds (Chris and I last heard him electrifying the Albert Hall with a fabulous all-Gershwin programme, out soon on Warner). But Wilson has both serious form as an interpreter of more standard twentieth-century repertoire and a passion for erasing boundaries between ‘classical’ and ‘light’ music; paradoxical though this statement may seem, this disc bears testimony to both.

His lifelong immersion in the sound-world of 30s and 40s American music is evident from the off, with the distant trumpets in Fanfare for the Common Man glowing with that vibrato-warmed vintage brass sound that’s so distinctive in his recordings of the great musicals, and at the beginning of Billy the Kid his innate ability to tap into the filmic elements of the music is so acute that it conjures an instant mental image of the MGM logo zooming into focus over the prairies. (If I’m honest, part of me expected Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Curly Maclaine to burst into song at this point, and I don’t think it’s just the power of association that points up the similarities between Copland and his musical-theatre contemporaries here: I’ve never noticed before how much the fight-sequences in Billy the Kid prefigure The Rumble in Bernstein’s West Side Story, or how closely the cross-cultural dance-music anticipates the forced jollity of The Farmer and the Cowman’s uneasy knees-up in Oklahoma!).

But Wilson is never one to impose a one-size-fits-all approach to music-making, and whilst there are some lightbulb-moments which illuminate parallels between Copland and Wilson’s more usual stomping-ground, there’s never a sense of him asserting The John Wilson Sound TM (all swooning strings and just-sleazy-enough brass) unless the music explicitly invites it. What struck me most of all about the disc as a whole was the delicacy and subtlety, the infinite varieties of light and shade, that Wilson conjures from Copland’s scores: every single phrase of all the works presented here feels truly balletic, and the music never stops dancing.

Just occasionally I missed the gutsy audacity of the star trumpeters from Wilson’s own orchestra in El Salón México (which, fittingly enough, feels more like a glossy picture-postcard from an urban tourist than an authentic representation of central America), but the shimmering heat-haze conjured by the strings (plus some wonderfully idiomatic woodwind solo work) soon distracted me from that.

It’s in the Four Dances from Rodeo that what I think of as that distinctive John Wilson Sound really comes into play, and it’s a glorious coda to a wonderful new disc. I look forward to the subsequent instalments (and especially the symphonies) immensely, and here’s hoping that Wilson’s explorations of Americana continue further afield…

Copland: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1

BBC Philharmonic, John Wilson

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC