Naxos didn't seize upon the best little amateur orchestra on the plains; the Elgin Symphony is a 58-year-old group in suburban Chicago that went pro in 1985. There's an abundance of musical talent in that area, as this orchestra demonstrates in its full, confident, accomplished sonority. Conductor Robert Hanson knows Copland better than Copland himself, so far as conducting goes, so from the start his version of the suite from "The Tender Land," which few besides the composer have recorded, goes to the top of the list. The opera lacks dramatic interest, but for anyone who love Copland in his cowboys-and-Shakers style, the suite fits the bill (none of the excerpts are of the caliber of his great ballets, however).
The Piano Concerto is equally populist but was composed at a higher level, and we get some dissonance and jazz to add interest. Any Copland piece that Leonard Bernstein recorded isn't likely to get a better performance. Pianist Ben Pasternak does better in the lyrical first movement than in the second, where he isn't bluesy or swinging enough. Nonetheless, he's quite good, and Naxos's big-as-all-outdoors recording adds the right atmosphere.
The "Old American Songs," as another reviewer says, received a once-in-a-lifetime recording from William Warfield (Sony), followed by a scarcely less powerful one from Thomas Hampson in his prime (Teldec). Baritone Nathaniel Staumpley has a lighter voice, and he isn't secure enough to cut loose with total abandon (he tends to wobble at loud volume), but he's enthusiastic and catches the folk idiom without retentious touches of the concert platform. It was smart to record the version Irving Fine made that includes a chorus, since it takes a lot of the burden off Staumpley. There are times, though, when conductor Hnason is too polite and the enterprise becomes a genial community sing-along.
In all, this is a real find at bargain price, even if none of the performances excetp 'The Tender Land' competes with the best.