Leonard Slatkin conducts Aaron Copland – Grohg | Billy the Kid – Detroit Symphony Orchestra [Naxos]

5 of 5 stars

Billy the Kid

Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Recorded October & November 2014 in Orchestra Hall, Detroit

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: March 2019
CD No: NAXOS 8.559862
Duration: 63 minutes



2014 is correct, so here at last from Naxos (release date March 8) are two very different sides of the creativity of Aaron Copland (1900-90), if linked by both being music for ballet, conducted by one of his constant champions.

Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra play every note of Billy the Kid (1938) – there is also a Suite – and the complete score not only convincingly extends familiar sections but includes fine music otherwise lost. Throughout, Slatkin’s judgement is spot-on (where other conductors can rush he retains poise) and the DSO is at-one (whether tuttis or solos) with its maestro and the music with playing of precision, vivid detail and sonorous projection, superbly recorded, too, with a natural perspective and a tangibility that puts the listener in one of Orchestra Hall’s best seats.

It’s a dramatic performance, full of colour and atmosphere, ranging from the luminous sounding of ‘Prairie Night’ or, following Billy cheating Sherriff Pat Garrett at cards, the ‘Gun Battle’ in which percussion mimic armaments, followed by the jaunty ‘Celebration’ as Billy is carted off to prison.

He murders a guard and escapes to waltz in the desert, musical cream cheese, but is soon caught up with. Your reviewer was surprised by a gunshot, which does for Billy and nearly did for me – Slatkin’s revenge! – but I live to write another day, and that means Grohg (first on the disc), 1925, which gives no indication of the Copland to come – of Rodeo, Billy or Appalachian Spring, or the stirring Common Man Fanfare that stands-alone or as part of Symphony 3 – not that Copland stayed ‘popular’, as a later masterpiece, Connotations, shows.

Regarding Grohg, Copland reminisced: “One evening in the fall of 1922 we went to see the popular German horror film Nosferatu. It was about a vampire magician with the power to make corpses come to life…by the time we reached home that night I decided that this bizarre tale would be the basis for my ballet.”

Musically, Grohg (a ‘he’, and adapted from Bram Stoker’s Dracula) is garish and threatening, hard-hitting, moody, and quite brilliant in its image-creating capacity – it sucks the listener in and doesn’t let go for thirty minutes. Strikingly inventive – ranging from rowdy to darkly seductive, fantastical all-round and climactically charismatic (some of the music was re-used in Dance Symphony) – it could not be better served than by Slatkin and the DSO.

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