Sunday, September 4, 2016

Naxos will Release its Second Aaron Copland Recording in its “Complete Ballet” Series

This Friday Naxos will release its second CD of Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in performances of the music of Aaron Copland in what is being called its “Complete Ballet” series. The first volume was released in June of 2013; and, while the cover lists the primary content as “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes,” the reader who takes the trouble to scroll down to the track listing (the Amazon version, rather than the image of the back cover) will see five tracks enumerated, including the “Ranch House Party” episode between the “Corral Nocturne” and the “Saturday Night Waltz.” The other selections on this first volume were “Dance Panels,” along with “El sálon México” and “Danzón Cubano,” neither of which were written explicitly for choreography (although both of them have been choreographed at least once).

In the second volume, which is currently available for pre-order from, the quote marks around “Complete Ballet” do double duty. Yes, it is the name assigned to the series; but there are some complications to the first listing on the cover as “Appalachian Spring (Complete Ballet).” Those complications stem from the fact that the recording of “Appalachian Spring” was made on May 18, 2014; but, on May 10 of this year, Jane Levere posted an article on the WQXR Blog, maintained by New York radio station WQXR, with the headline “New Version of ‘Appalachian Spring’ Completes What Copland Began.” The bottom line is that there was a semantic shift in the adjective “complete” that only recently took place.

“Appalachian Spring” was created for Martha Graham (who probably would have objected to the noun “ballet”) and her dance company; and it was first performed at the Library of Congress on October 30, 1944. Financial constraints required that Graham work with limited resources. So, while the company danced to “live” music, Copland had instrumented the score for a thirteen-member chamber orchestra. Copland then prepared a suite of music from the original version scored for a full orchestra, cutting about ten minutes from the original in the process. He completed that suite in 1945.

Fast forward about a decade. Eugene Ormandy, Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, asked Copland if he was willing to restore the cuts for the full-orchestra version. Copland never completed this project, but in 1954 he gave Ormandy a version in which he had reworked the longest of the cuts to Ormandy’s satisfaction. This became known as the “complete” version of “Appalachian Spring” for full orchestra. It was the core of the “complete” recording Slatkin made in 1988 with the St. Louis Symphony, which included the recovery of a few additional bits that had been cut.

Levere’s article, however, was to announce “a new full-orchestral version,” for which David Newman rewrote those measures from the chamber orchestra version that had not yet been taken into account. The first performance was given its world premiere this past May 11 in Dallas, almost exactly two years after Slatkin made his recording with the Detroit Symphony. Taking all of this history into account, it is safe to assume that Slatkin was using the same score he used in St. Louis in 1988.

How much of a difference does any of this make? Those who know this score only through the suite Copland had made in 1945 know that the heart of that suite is the set of variations on the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts.” In Graham’s original choreography, those variations are interrupted. A preacher, who delivers his first sermon early in the dance, gives a second sermon, this one loaded with hellfire and brimstone. This makes for a violent shock to all the pastoral rhetoric that had previously unfolded; and he is eventually interrupted by the pioneer woman (the woman who has “see it all out on the prairie”) and told on no uncertain terms to cool it. There is then a brief review of many of the themes encountered earlier in the dance, after which “Simple Gifts” returns to usher in the coda.

My own opinion is that the music for that violent sermon and the following reflections on the past only make sense to those who have seen Graham’s choreography. (Disclaimer: I have seen it more times than I can enumerate.) For those who know the dance, it reinforces memory of the most compelling episode of the whole piece. (For those who know the history of how the dance was made, it also offers some insight as to what Merce Cunningham was doing before he struck out on his own, since the role of the preacher was made for him.) Just about anyone else will probably be more satisfied with Copland’s suite as a well-integrated composition.

The second volume includes only one other selection, “Here Ye! Hear Ye!,” a one-act ballet in eighteen scenes made for choreography by Ruth Page. Page had a keen sense of Americana, which made her a good partner for Copland. Sadly, her work has received relatively little exposure outside of her adopted home town of Chicago. As might be guessed from the title, the primary scene is a courtroom. One quickly learns that the defendant is accused of murder, and the ballet interleaves scenes of testimony with the actions being related by the witnesses. Copland makes heavy use of familiar tunes, even taking a whack at the National Anthem. The narrative is straightforward and can easily be followed by the titles assigned to the individual scenes. Unfortunately, those titles were omitted from both the back cover and the accompanying booklet. The best place to recover them is the Web page for this piece on the Classical Archives Web site.

It would have been nice had the scene of “Appalachian Spring” been dissected into individual tracks played without interruption. These days, however, you have to take what you get. As a conductor Slatkin definitely knows is Copland, and his rapport with the Detroit Symphony is as good on this recording as it was on the first volume. Nevertheless, some of us will be waiting with heightened curiosity for a recording of what now purports to be a “complete” performance of “Appalachian Spring” for full orchestra. (The rest of us remain happy with the chamber version as Copland originally wrote it!)

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