Pardon my shouting, but it's true. All the accolades this disc receives are warranted, and more. The playing on Appalachian Spring is pure, impassioned, eternal. No wonder Copland won the Pulitzer for it in 1945. It's just incredible. This recording of the Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo is DEFINITIVE. Every nuance and outburst of joyous energy in Buckaroo Holiday and Hoe Down is perfect. No one has done it better. And while Billy the Kid is "harder to mess up" in my opinion, I still haven't found a better reading of it than this one.
Just a couple of caveats, though. If you want the COMPLETE ballets for Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, and Billy the Kid, you will NOT find them here. These are the suites. For the complete Appalachian Spring (all 36 minutes in one track), I recommend Michael Tilson Thomas' version on a CD with the San Francisco Symphony called The Populist. And for complete versions of the other two, you need look no further than Leonard Slatkin's recordings with the St. Louis Symphony.
And then three more notes on the playing. The timpani player did an incredible job on this Bernstein Century recording; he consistently played the heck out the ample parts he got in all four pieces. This is one of the best features of the disc (I mean, you've gotta have good timpani for the Gun Battle in Billy the Kid, and here he does!)
Secondly, take particular note that the version of Fanfare for the Common Man is NOT the original. It is Copland's rescoring for his third symphony (which is also great in its own right). If you want the real original version, the best you can find features Copland himself conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, released on various other CDs on the Sony label, including a 36-minute "EP" called Aaron Copland Super Hits. If you do happen to buy that CD, note that it is mostly chopped up excerpts. However, the readings of El Salon Mexico and Fanfare make it worth the purchase price.
Thirdly and finally, I expected some sheer grandioso from the Variations on a Shaker Tune (Simple Gifts), which happens to be track seven on this recording. While Bernstein's reading is balanced and polished, this is the one place where he really should've played it up but didn't. Incidentally, Michael Tilson Thomas DOES play it up on his version of the complete ballet that I mentioned previously, really getting the low brass to ripple and rumble. It's very satisfying at high volume.
Please don't misconstrue these warnings to be negative. If you're getting a start in Copland's most popular repertoire, this Bernstein Century CD is the ONLY place to start. I just caution you that if you don't move on the other recordings as well, you are really missing the whole picture.