Tucked in among the thrice-familiar 'Four Dance Episodes' from 'Rodeo' and music from the film 'The Red Pony' are two Copland rarities which partake of the same open-air style perfected by Copland in the 1930s. They are 'Prairie Journal' and 'Letter from Home' and both were commissioned for radio performances; alas, how far we've come from those days when American radio networks commissioned classical works.
'Prairie Journal' (earlier called, and sometime still listed as 'Music for Radio') was written in 1937 for CBS (along with commissioned works by Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, Louis Gruenberg, Walter Piston and William Grant Still). Initially called simply 'Music for Radio' there was a contest for naming it and the winner was 'Saga of the Prairie.' Copland took this suggestion to heart and renamed it 'Prairie Journal.' It is an eleven-minute evocation of the agrarian west with bustling themes, catchy rhythms, and eventually the serenity of approaching night on the prairie. This is a work worthy of being programmed more than occasionally.
'Letter from Home' was commissioned during wartime 1944 and conjures up the feelings of a soldier, far from home, receiving a letter from the folks (or perhaps the girlfriend). It has a plaintive tune first sung by the clarinet and then harmonized in an almost dreamy style. A melancholy trumpet tune recalls a similar passage in Appalachian Spring. (I wonder if this piece has ever been choreographed? It would be suitable for a solo dance, I should think.)
Of course, the dance episodes from 'Rodeo' are extremely well-known, and their hair-trigger rhythms are given a marvelously alive performance here by the crack Buffalo Philharmonic under Joann Falletta. Almost as well known are the excerpts from one of Copland's film scores, 'The Red Pony.' This has always been a great favorite of mine and I approve of the way Falletta and her orchestra manage the alternation of nostalgia, exciting, and parodic elements of the score. One might quibble some at the occasionally awkward tempo shifts, but generally speaking this is a performance that can stand with the best, including those of Leonard Bernstein.
Sound is excellent. My only complaint is the slightly short timing of the CD -- 59:55 -- and wish there could have been another selection. There would even have been time, for instance, for a performance of the 'Billy the Kid' suite. Ah, well, what we get here is certainly worth the budget outlay.