Copland: Billy The Kid & Grohg (CD)

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Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin

Aaron Copland did as much as anyone in establishing American concert music on the world stage, and his ballet scores proved to be among his most important and influential works. Grohg is the most ambitious example of his Parisian years, a precociously brilliant one-act ballet scored for full orchestra, inspired by the silent film expressionist film Nosferatu. The first example of Copland’s new ‘Americanized’ music of the 1930s was Billy the Kid, based on the life of the 19th-century outlaw and heard here in its full version. This was the first fully fledged American ballet in style and content: brassy, syncopated, filmic and richly folk-flavored. 

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Aaron Copland

1. Introduction and Cortège - Entrance of Grohg
2. Dance of the Adolescent
3. Dance of the Opium-Eater (Visions of Jazz)
4. Dance of the Street-Walker
5. Grohg Imagines the Dead Are Mocking Him
6. Illumination and Disappearance of Grohg

Billy the Kid
7. Introduction: The Open Prairie
8. Street in a Frontier Town
9. Mexican Dance and Finale
10. Prairie Night (Card Game at Night) - Billy Cheats Garrett at Cards - They Quarrel
11. Gun Battle - Billy is Captured by Garrett, Turned Sheriff
12. Celebration
13. Billy in Prison - Murder of the Prison Guard and Escape
14. Billy in the Desert: Waltz
15. Billy's Death
16. Billy's Funeral: Mourning Mexicans
17. The Open Prairie Again

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From Gothic to Americana, Copland is Copland



Aaron Copland (1900-1990) single-handedly created the wide open spaces music that came to define the American West. His most popular work in this vein was his ballet score Appalachian Spring, but the earliest - and the most dramatic - was his 1938 ballet Billy the Kid, depicting the life and death of the legendary 19th century outlaw. The violence, sentiment and feeling of isolation in a vast, lonely prairie are all captured in music of deceptive simplicity and beauty. An even earlier ballet, written in 1925 when Copland was studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, could not be more of a contrast: Grohgis a vampire story, inspired by the German silent filmNosferatu. This music is European modernist, with no American flavour at all, yet the composer's clear, rhythmic lines and love of primary colours are still evident. Grohg did not make much impact, and eventually Copland recycled most of the music into his Dance Symphony.

To my knowledge, the complete 30-minute score of Grohghas only had one previous recording, with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen. The full length score of Billy the Kidis rare on disc as well; generally we get a shorter suite, which leaves out the catchy 'Waltz for Billy'. The previous version of the complete Billy the Kidwas also made by Leonard Slatkin, conducting the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for EMI in 1985. That was a terrific performance (coupled with Rodeo), but it is outclassed by this new one featuring the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The sound is remarkably vivid, the orchestral playing is tremendous, and Slatkin (whose recent recordings of Ravel have been disappointing) is totally back on form on his home turf. Grohgis not quite as spooky as it is under Knussen, but that 1996 Argo disc is hard to find these days.

Both these colourful, exciting scores are full of musical interest and brilliantly realised here. This disc is well worth the modest outlay. 5 STARS