Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Hear Ye! Hear Ye! (1934) [34:32]
Appalachian Spring (complete) (1944) [37:57]
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. 4-7 December 2013 (Hear Ye!), 14-18 May 2014 (Appalachian Spring), Orchestra Hall, Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, Detroit, USA
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559806 [72:27]
This is Volume 2 of a survey of Copland’s ballets by Leonard Slatkin. Volume 1 included the complete ballets Rodeo and Dance Panels as well as El Salón Mexico and Danzón Cubano. That release passed me by but having heard its successor I’m sorry about that – and all the more so since reading Brian Reinhart’s warm review. That album was also released in BD-A format and I see that Dan Morgan was enthusiastic about both the performances and sound quality (review). So far as I know, this present release is only available in CD format at the moment.
Volume 1 contained a couple of rarities in the shape of the 1959 ballet Dance Panels and also Rodeo in its complete form rather than the ‘Four Dance Episodes’ which are more commonly aired. This new release also offers unusual fare. Not only does Leonard Slatkin give us the full score of Appalachian Spring rather than the Suite but he also offers a rare chance to hear one of Copland’s earliest ballet scores, Hear Ye! Hear Ye! I’d never heard this music before though I learned from Dan Morgan’s review that it has been recorded once before: by Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta. From what I’ve been able to find out on the internet I believe that the Knussen recording is of the small orchestra version of the score (1935). There’s no mention of different versions of the score in the Naxos documentation and I suspect Slatkin has used the slightly more substantial orchestration. Details of both sets of orchestral forces can be found here.
It’s appropriate to comment at this point on the presentation of this release by Naxos. I give them full credit for offering first class performances in excellent sound. Plaudits are due also for the enterprise shown in the choice of music – especially for recording Hear Ye! Hear Ye! However, Naxos let themselves down in other respects. Firstly, Appalachian Spring is just presented as one track. Would it have been too much of an effort to divide it up into several tracks? Given that many collectors will be familiar with the Suite from the ballet it would have been helpful if the note by Guy Barast had said something about the differences between the two scores: after all, the complete ballet has about 14 minutes more music than the suite. More serious is their treatment of Hear Ye! Hear Ye! which will be unfamiliar to most listeners. The ballet consists of 18 short scenes, none of which is longer than 3:51. Each scene is tracked separately, which is helpful. However, the notes by Charles Greenwell contain only the briefest synopsis of the ballet and no attempt is made to relate the action to the scenes. Indeed, about half the note is devoted to biographical information about Ruth Page, the celebrated American dancer who asked Copland to write the score and who devised the ballet. That’s interesting information but listeners would gladly trade some of that for a bit more detail about what they are listening to.
Hear Ye! Hear Ye! is set in a Chicago courtroom. The trial in question is related to the murder of a male dancer, slain in a nightclub. Three sets of witnesses are called: a hostess from the nightclub; a honeymoon couple and a waiter from the club. Between them the witnesses manage to identify three separate perpetrators and in the end the jury convicts all three. One interesting little detail I picked up in Copland’s autobiography is that Ruth Page was married to a lawyer. Perhaps that gave her the idea in the first place. Page wanted a score that reflected the ability that Copland has already shown to write jazz-influenced music. He certainly delivered; the music is lively, colourful and leaves us in no doubt that the events that are depicted concern a nightclub.
Apparently Copland used material from some of his earlier scores including the ballet Grohg (1922-25), music from which was also recycled into Dance Symphony, but I’m not familiar with the scores concerned so I couldn’t identify those influences. More readily discerned are slightly subversive quotations from The Star Spangled Banner (at the start and near the end) and a reference to Mendelssohn’s Wedding March when one set of witnesses, a newly-wed couple, are called to testify (Scene X). Popular dance rhythms such as the Tango are introduced and there’s more than one whiff of the Blues. Copland is unafraid to write garish music when required – for example in Scene IV (The Chorus Girls’ First Dance). Scene XII is one of those that includes a recollection of the murder – presumably in flashback as the second witness testifies – and here (at 3:12) there’s a loud gunshot. We also hear a gunshot at the end of Scene XVI as the third witness recounts what allegedly happened.
I enjoyed this music very much. It’s vivid, colourful and dramatic. In his autobiography, published in 1984, Copland says “I prefer that the original ballet score remains unpublished”. The score is now in the public domain, however, and I’m glad that it is. I think Copland was a little harsh on himself though perhaps he was viewing Hear Ye! Hear Ye! from the perspective of some of his later, greater balletic achievements. It’s a score that is very well worth hearing and Slatkin and his Detroit orchestra give a committed and highly entertaining account of it. This is a significant addition to the Copland discography.
Ten years later Copland achieved something much more significant with Appalachian Spring. He wrote the ballet originally for 13 instruments (review) but what Slatkin plays here is the full orchestra version that Copland made the following year. I’m particularly pleased that he’s selected the full score rather than the very popular Suite because in so doing he gives us a chance to hear quite a bit more music. Just to illustrate how much more music, Copland’s own 1970 recording of the Suite with the LSO plays for 24:42.
I’m not sure I know of any composer who has better translated into music the "Great American Outdoors" than Aaron Copland and arguably in no score did he do this better than in Appalachian Spring. Slatkin’s performance is excellent. The gentle, pastoral radiance of the opening is beautifully done. Later Slatkin and the DSO step lively in the barn dance music (from about 11:00). It’s interesting to spot differences between the complete score and the suite. Sometimes these are quite slight – for instance just a few notes in the passage between 14:54 and 15:06 which Copland excised when he made the suite. There are more substantial changes, however, the largest of which contains a stretch of music (24:00-32:24) towards the end of the ‘Simple Gifts’ section. Nothing from the passage in question found its way into the suite, though the music is very good. During it Copland makes some references to themes from earlier in the ballet and eventually he moves back seamlessly to what is familiar to us, from the suite, as the grand climax to the ‘Simple Gifts’ section. In the closing pages (from 33:36) the gentle contentment that pervades the end of the ballet is very nicely conveyed in this performance. I very much enjoyed Slatkin’s account of Appalachian Spring.
This is a splendid disc that all Copland devotees should try to hear. The performances of both works are first rate. Two engineers have worked on the recording: one who represents the DSO and one who works for the well-known firm Soundmirror. Their collaboration has produced excellent results. There’s a wholly appropriate edge to the sound in Hear Ye! Hear Ye! while the less abrasive colours of Appalachian Spring are equally well reported. The documentation is all right as far as it goes but could have been so much better. For the benefit of readers who, like me, may be unfamiliar with Hear Ye! Hear Ye! I am adding to the foot of this review a summary of the action, related to the various scenes.
Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)
Hear Ye! Hear Ye! - Summary of Scenes
Scene i (Prelude)
Scenes ii-iv (The Courtroom; Dance of the Prosecutors)
Scene v (The Nightclub Hostess sworn in)
Scene vi (The Chorus Girls' first dance)
Scene vii (First Pas-de-deux)
Scene viii (Pas-de-deux continued; First murder)
Scenes ix-x (The Courtroom; the Honeymoon Couple sworn in)
Scene xi (The Chorus Girls' dance with doves)
Scene xii (Second Pas-de-deux and Murder)
Scenes xiii-xiv (The Courtroom; the Waiter is sworn in)
Scene xv (The Chorus Girls' third dance)
Scene xvi (Third Pas-de-deux and Murder)
Scenes xvii-xviii (The Verdict; the Courtroom)