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

Of course Billy the Kid is the major work here and the disc’s biggest selling point, but the ballet Grohg may well be the piece that attracts Copland mavens and the curious. It was the composer’s first orchestral composition and predates by more than a decade his popular cowboy music phase, which included Billy as well as Rodeo (1942) and Appalachian Spring (1944). Grohg was never performed in the composer’s lifetime, though its first number, Introduction and Cortège, was: in an arrangement by Copland named Cortège Macabre, it was premiered in 1925 by Howard Hanson and the Eastman Philharmonia. Hanson led a performance of it again, but not until 1971. Curiously, Copland never sought to get a performance of the ballet, having withdrawn it even though he went to the trouble of revising it in 1932.
Grohg was inspired by the German expressionist film about a vampire, Nosferatu (1922). Stylistically, Grohg seems to be all over the place, encompassing many disparate elements. Hints of Stravinsky and even Poulenc can be heard in No. 2, Dance of the Adolescent, especially in the woodwind writing. No. 3, Dance of the Opium-Eater, is quite jazzy, as its parenthetic subtitle declares—Visions of Jazz. No. 5, Grohg Imagines the Dead Are Mocking Him, carries some of the raucous characteristics of Ives’ scores, but then Paris in the mid-1920s saw the appearance of such cacophonous works as George Antheil’s notorious Ballet Mechanique. Yet, despite whatever influences one might discern in this score, it clearly divulges more of Copland’s voice, evolving though it then was, than it does that of other composers. Moreover, its mixture of the macabre, the humorous and then-popular music styles unites the work to give it a flavor of its own.

Yet, in the end Grohg is not a great work—rather, it’s uneven at best but a worthwhile rediscovery nonetheless. Oliver Knussen was the first to lead a performance (1992) and recording (1993) of Grohg. This Naxos issue is only the work’s second recording. I have not heard Knussen’s effort with the Cleveland Orchestra but the reader may want to check out Dan Morgan’s very thoughtful previous review for commentary on Knussen’s account).

Slatkin treats the music in Grohg with grit and spirit: he does not sand the edges of the jagged and coarse elements in the score, nor does he tamp down its crushing decibels. His vampire here has teeth with a deadly bite. The plentiful jazzy and rhythmic features of the music emerge with vitality and rich color, and the humorous side of the music is subtle yet divulges an irresistible playful and slapstick-like quality – try nos. 2 and 4. It may not be great music but Slatkin draws a great performance from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in highly detailed sound.

As for Billy, Slatkin turns in one of the top two or three performances of the work that I’ve heard. Introduction: The Open Prairie is atmospheric and concludes powerfully, the woodwinds and brass turning in fine work. The ensuing Street in a Frontier Town is busy and playful, as it should be, the cowboy flavors of the music emerging with gusto and vivid colors. You can’t help but love Mexican Dance and Finale, its catchy rhythms at the outset and shifting moods later on all captured with great spirit and seemingly perfect pacing. The serene music in Prairie Night nicely sets the stage for Gun Battle, which here is powerful and thoroughly compelling. Compelling goes for Celebration, too - its catchy tune, sassy demeanor and foot-stomping rhythms come across with both swagger and subtlety, orchestral balances just right as the dance builds to an irresistible frenzy. The remaining numbers, I have generally felt, are somewhat less effective in this score, but Slatkin and company make perhaps the best case possible for them.

Thus, Slatkin and the DSO turn in an excellent performance of Billy, and again in splendid, quite detailed sound. But the problem is, they go up against formidable competition, which includes Slatkin himself: he recorded the work back in 1985 with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on EMI, an effort with similar tempos and playing. But clearly this new performance is more detailed in its playing and recording—and simply better. Copland made a excellent recording of the suite with the London Symphony Orchestra on a Columbia LP, but there have been other fine efforts by Ormandy and Tilson Thomas, both on RCA.

However, to clear the waters, Slatkin’s chief competition in Billy comes from Andrew Litton and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra on BIS. Not only are the interpretation and playing first rate, but the sound reproduction is outstanding. If I had to choose between the two, like Dan Morgan in his review, I’d give Litton the edge: his Gun Battle and Celebration, to cite just two numbers, are in a class by themselves, and the whole effort is simply superb. But don’t write off Slatkin—his is a splendid performance that doesn’t fall short by much, and because the Naxos disc is less costly and features the rarely recorded and performed Grohg, it is a very attractive alternative. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be without either.
Robert Cummings
Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ John Quinn

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