Sunday, January 18, 2015


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It was Eugene Ormandy who persuaded Copland to reinstate and re-orchestrate those pages of music that he had omitted from the orchestral suite. In contention are several minutes of music leading up to the final tutti statement of the Shaker hymn Simple gifts; by no means the most inspired or accomplished music in the score, perhaps—and particularly when divorced from the physical drama on stage—but a substantial and dramatic sequence building from under a cloud of anxiety, with driving, stuttering ostinatos and the urgent summons of brass and alarm bell. Moments of consolation and repose come and go—one senses the hopes and fears of the settlers—until confidence is fully restored with the Shaker hymn emerging affirmatively from the crisis, its effect to my mind greatly heightened by the uncertainty of what has gone before. At least those were my thoughts at the close of Slatkin's persuasive and big-hearted reading. And I can see why he should have chosen Copland's full orchestral garb in preference to the pithier chamber original. I don't recall these contentious 'extra' pages making anything like such an impression in the composer's complete CBS recording of the original version.

Grohg (the 'h' inserted "to avoid alcoholic connotation!"), Copland's earliest ballet, a 'vampire ballet' inspired by the German expressionist movie Nosferatu, was never staged or even choreographed. Some of its music was later recycled for the Dance Symphony, but "Cortege macabre" was one of two sections salvaged for concert purposes. It was Copland's first orchestral score and the second to be performed. And it is very much as the title would suggest: a grisly processional, disrupted briefly by the energetic "Servitors' Dance" (echoes of Barber's Medea—Slatkin himself has pointed to the similarities) and building to a resplendent trill and glissando-laden entrance for Grohg himself.

Of the two remaining pieces, Letter from home was commissioned by Paul Whiteman and the American Broadcasting Company and premiered on radio less than two weeks before the Washington premiere of Appalachian Spring. It belongs very much within that nostalgic, rather homely rural America context. As does John Henry— originally designated "A railroad ballet for small orchestra" but later revised for this larger orchestra some years later. The folk-hero/construction worker of the title was said to have pitted his manual skills against a steam hammer—and won, "at the cost of his own life". And Copland's energetic little tone-poem, another radio commission, is replete with the strains of steel and steam trains and one of those very heroic, prairiefied outdoor themes. All three of these shorter pieces might be deemed curio rather than vintage Copland, but anyone at all interested in the development of his music will want to hear them—at least once. Slatkin and his orchestra do them proud. Warm, sumptuous recording. E.S.

1. Appalachian Spring (complete ballet) (1945) 36:33
2. Cortége macabre from “Grohg” (1922-25, revised 1932) 13:43
3. Letter from Home (1943-1944) 6:39
4. John Henry (1940) 3:45

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin
Recorded at Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis, MO USA