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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Piano Fantasy (1955-7) [29:19]
Piano Sonata (1939-41) [21:56]: ((i) Molto moderato [7:59] (ii) Vivace [5:00] (iii) Andante sostenuto [8:57])
Piano Variations (1930) [11:53]
Benjamin Pasternak (piano)
Rec. Toronto Arts Centre, Ontario in August 2003 DDD
NAXOS 8.559184 [63:08]

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The American composer Aaron Copland is best known for orchestral music. However he was also a fine pianist who wrote extensively for his instrument. Indeed some of his much loved orchestral music also exists in versions for the piano. Here we have a disc devoted to major works written exclusively for the piano. The idiom of these pieces will not be immediately recognizable to those familiar only with works such as Appalachian Spring Ė their austerity makes no concession to popular taste. In essence, this record explores the private side of Copland. It may come as a bit of a shock to those who have only encountered his most familiar works.

The Fantasy which opens the disc is one of Coplandís largest conceptions. The material started life as a planned concerto for William Kapell but when he was killed in a plane crash in 1953 Copland dropped the idea. Subsequently he reworked the sketches into a single long movement of three parts plus a coda. In this work Copland uses serial techniques and the main motif is derived from a ten-note falling and rising scale which is given very grandly at the outset. The central section is a kind of scherzo with trio following which the material of the opening is extensively reworked. The coda is slow, reflective and ultimately calm. This is surely one of the major piano works of the 20th century.

The Sonata took Copland two years to complete following his successes with Billy the Kid and Quiet City, works with which it has little in common. Dedicated to the playwright Clifford Odets, the composer gave the premiere in Buenos Aires in 1941. Within a three movement structure which has slow outer movements sandwiching a lively, jazz-inspired scherzo, forms are relatively conventional.

The Variations followed Coplandís period of study with Nadia Boulanger. The underlying theme is a five-note motif and twenty rapidly contrasting variations follow in short order. As with the other works on the disc, the music is less immediately accessible than one might expect but it repays repeated listening.

All these works make major technical demands of the pianist and the Fantasy in particular requires prolonged concentration and vision. Benjamin Pasternack seems equal to the challenges, providing deeply felt readings which penetrate to the heart of this personal music. The exemplary recorded sound has a very wide dynamic range. This is yet another highly recommendable disc in Naxosís American Classics series.

Patrick C Waller


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