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 – 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
The Fantasy which opens
the disc is one of Copland’s 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
Copland’s 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
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 Naxos’s American Classics series.
Patrick C Waller