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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Grohg - One-Act Ballet (1925, rev. 1932) [29:35]
Billy the Kid (complete) (1938) [33:14]
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. 2014, Orchestra Hall, Detroit

I’ve been following with some interest Leonard Slatkin’s Copland series with the Detroit Symphony. I reviewed their pairing of Appalachian Spring and the much less familiar Hear Ye! Hear Ye! and I also reviewed Slatkin’s persuasive account of the Third Symphony. Dan Morgan’s enthusiasm was sufficient to persuade me to invest in the BD-A version of the album that included Rodeo and El Salón México. Dan’s enthusiasm was not misplaced, by the way.

Slatkin become Music Director of the DSO in 2008. He stepped down from that role, after ten years, at the end of the 2017/18 season and is now the orchestra’s Music Director Laureate. I note that most of this series of Copland recordings were set down between 2012 and 2014 and the two performances on this CD have waited over four years for release. Given that length of time it may be that there are other Slatkin/DSO recordings ‘in the can’; I hope so.

Earlier in the series Slatkin gave us something unfamiliar in the shape of the ballet Hear Ye! Hear Ye! (1934). I doubt if Grohg is much better known; I certainly can’t claim great familiarity with it. I learned from Charles Greenwell’s very informative notes that it was composed in 1925 while Copland was studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and it was his first orchestral work. He extracted the opening section as an independent work, entitled Cortège macabre, in which form Howard Hanson played it in 1925 and again in 1971. It appears also that some of the ballet’s material was incorporated into the Dance Symphony (1929). Copland then revised Grohg in 1932 – how extensively I’m unsure – but didn’t release it for publication. The ballet had to wait until 1992 for a performance and recording by the late Oliver Knussen, who had discovered the score. (By coincidence, I believe it was also Knussen who first recorded Hear Ye! Hear Ye!)

The scenario of the ballet isn’t exactly cheery. The inspiration came to Copland after he and a friend attended a showing of the German horror film Nosferatu in 1922. Originally entitled Le Necromancien, it was subsequently named after the principal character, the sorcerer, Grohg. In the ballet, Grohg brings back to life a succession of dead people – an adolescent, an opium addict, a street-walker – but never with happy results. Given this scenario, you won’t be surprised to learn that Copland’s music doesn’t represent him at his most appealing; much of the ballet is dark and gritty; it’s not an audience-pleaser in the way that, say Appalachian Spring is. However, the score is pretty compelling, dramatic and vividly scored. If you’re like me, you may well wonder as you listen why on earth the work was effectively suppressed for the best part of seventy years. It’s strongly illustrative and often dark. Jazz influences occasionally come to the fore; indeed, the third section is entitled ‘Dance of the Opium-Eater (Visions of Jazz’). The music is often dissonant, as you might expect given the subject matter. However, not everything is strident, by any means. The opening part of the second section, ‘Dance of the Adolescent’ contains music that is very nimble, albeit with a troubled undercurrent. The opening section ’Introduction and Cortège – Entrance of Grohg’ is impressively powerful while the concluding ‘Illumination and Disappearance of Grohg’ is oppressive and gloomy until the anti-hero slowly vanishes.

Copland’s scoring is vivid and inventive throughout this work. Though he may have revised the orchestration in 1932 with the benefit of a few more years of experience – I simply don’t know what the nature and extent of the revision was – it’s an extremely impressive creation when one thinks that this was his first foray into the orchestral genre. Slatkin and the DSO make a very strong case indeed for this score. The performance is committed, incisive and punchy. Thanks to the clear layout of the scenario in the booklet and the helpful way in which Naxos divide the recording into six corresponding tracks you can easily discern what is going on. I’ve not heard the Knussen recording. I suspect, though, it’s no longer available which makes the appearance of this very strong version from Detroit all the more welcome.

If Grohg is unfamiliar Copland, the same can’t be said of Billy the Kid. Composed in 1938, it represents the first major initiative by Copland in his endeavour to write music that appealed to a wider audience without compromising musical sophistication. Though there are definitely gritty aspects to this ballet too – gritty both in terms of the story and the music that illustrates the narrative – the music is much more immediately appealing than Grohg. The ballet has a strong, clear narrative and, as in Grohg, the presentation by Naxos and the quality of the performance allows you to follow the action and hear it brought to life.

I like the way the ‘Street in a Prairie Town’ bustles in a perky, busy way. The DSO’s playing is precise and – please pardon the pun – streetwise. The ‘Mexican Dance and Finale’ episode has great vibrancy though as I listened, I reflected that the music has little of the pronounced Mexican flavour that Copland had bought out just a couple of years before in El Salón México. Perhaps that’s because he’s depicting Billy not in Mexico itself but in New Mexico. I liked Slatkin’s poetic depiction of ‘Prairie Night’, not least the soulful, nostalgic solo trumpet. In the ‘Gun Battle’ the DSO’s percussion section has a field day, playing with great incisiveness. A little later, after Billy has escaped from jail and made it out to the desert, the Waltz is very well done with just the right degree of reassuring schmaltz. After the death of Billy, Slatkin’s final peroration has a nice blend of tragedy and (anti) heroism.

My benchmark performance for this dramatic and evocative score has been the splendid BIS performance conducted by Andrew Litton (review). In performance terms, it’s pretty much nip and tuck between the Litton and Slatkin versions and any differences between them are not significant - some may feel, for instance, that Litton plays the desert Waltz with a slightly lighter touch but if so then the difference is marginal. Litton’s SACD recording is superbly engineered but I don’t think that the Slatkin recording, produced by Blanton Alspaugh and engineered by Matthew Pons, need fear the comparison: both recordings are top-drawer. And by the way, though Grohg was set down at different sessions the recording of that ballet is every bit the equal of the sound for Billy the Kid.

Collectors who have been following Leonard Slatkin’s Copland series need not – and should not - hesitate. This is another winner from Detroit and I do hope there will be more to come.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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