Since becoming conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin has issued a variety of recordings. He has been able to call the shots as to repertory, and the results have generally been worthwhile. With this Copland release he and the orchestra have outdone themselves. Copland has always been one of Slatkin's specialties; he gets the peculiarly American mix of broadness and subtlety in the composer's music, and his readings of the big ballets are as fine as any on the market. Here you get the complete Billy the Kid, less often heard than the familiar Suite, and containing the solitary "Billy in the Desert" to match the card game nocturne, both hypnotically done. The real news here, however, is Grohg, written in 1925 at the suggestion of Copland's teacher, Nadia Boulanger, performed once in 1932, and then abandoned until the early 1990s. Performances are rare, but Slatkin's reading is good enough to change that. Having been given the task of writing a ballet and having recently seen the film Nosferatu, Copland asked the director Harold Clurman for a scenario, received a surreal tale in which the titular sorcerer animates a variety of personalities, and went to town with a score that reflects various fashions of the 1920s. There is a bit of jazz (paired, significantly, with the sorcerer's revived opium addict), some highly dissonant passages, perhaps even a bit of twisted-up Grieg. And yet, all of it somehow sounds like Copland, and there are foreshadowings aplenty of his mature style. Copland himself thought enough of the music to reuse some of it in his Symphony No. 2 ("Short Symphony"), and you couldn't ask for a better combination than Slatkin and the Detroiters in bringing out his personality in the music. Highly recommended.
Copland: Billy the Kid; Grohg Review
by James Manheim