Copland: Billy the Kid, complete ballet (CD review)

Also, Grohg. Leonard Slatkin, Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.559862.

Was there ever another composer who so captured the American spirit as Aaron Copland (1900-1990)? His fellow composers referred to him as "the Dean of American composers," his having written such classics as Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, The Red Pony, Fanfare for the Common Man, Of Mice and Men, Our Town, and Billy the Kid. And what conductor has done more to advance the cause of musical Americana than Leonard Slatkin? Leonard Bernstein perhaps? Michael Tilson Thomas, Eugene Ormandy, Erich Kunzel? I dunno. In any case, before this recording with his Detroit Symphony, Slatkin had already recorded Billy the Kid at least twice, the previous releases being with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBC Music) and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (EMI, Musical Heritage Society, and Warner Classics). This time, however, he does the work complete.

Copland wrote Billy the Kid in 1938 on commission from Lincoln Kirstein, a noted New York impresario and cofounder of the New York City Ballet. The music became an instant success, incorporating as it does several well-known folk and Western tunes and telling an episodic story more about the Wild West in general than specifically about the notorious outlaw William H. Bonney (born Henry McCartney).

Leonard Slatkin
This work was the first in Copland's newfound "Americanized" style, and Slatkin takes advantage of it. There's a jaunty Western rhythm to the music, yet it's never a simple forward beat. The conductor is able to wring empathy, tenderness, and excitement from the piece, all the while making it seem almost cinematic, like a John Ford picture. Although I have to admit a slight preference for the composer's own late-Sixties recording with the London Symphony (Sony), the composer stuck with the suite rather than the full ballet. So this rendering with Slatkin may be among the best complete scores you'll find. And it's good to find it at so reasonable a price, too.

In addition to the complete Billy the Kid ballet is what may be for many listeners, perhaps, an oddity, the one-act Copland ballet from 1925 called Grohg. No, I hadn't heard of it before, either. The composer was inspired to write it after seeing German director F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent expressionist film Nosferatu, a retelling of the Dracula story. Although the tale is morbid, even gruesome, Copland said he meant his music to be "fantastic rather than ghastly."

The work may be short, less than thirty minutes, but it's colorful, a little jazzy, and certainly bizarre. Slatkin takes advantage of all of these characteristics, making it a rather fun piece of music and unaccountably overlooked by most other conductors. While it's no underrated masterpiece by any means, it does come off under Slatkin as something like a good film score. I wonder if anyone has ever thought of trying to incorporate it with the silent Murnau flick? Probably. In any event, Slatkin does make it come alive (pun intended) for the listener, and one can easily imagine the action of the story as it unfolds and feel the atmosphere of the scenes.

Producer Blanton Alspaugh and engineers Matthew Pons and Mark Donahue recorded the music at Orchestra Hall, Detroit, in October and November 2014. It's a pleasure listening to a recording not made live with an audience present. The perspective here is natural, not close-up, the frequency and dynamic responses are wide (the shot that kills Billy may jolt you from your seat), and the sense of hall presence in a fairly ambient bloom is pleasing to the ear. There could have been, I suppose, a bit more warmth in the upper bass to enhance the realism even further, but the overall clarity is, nevertheless, quite welcome.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa