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Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Piano Fantasy (1955-57) [29’19]
Piano Sonata (1939-41) [21’56]
Piano Variations (1930) [11’53]
Benjamin Pasternak (piano)
Recorded at the Toronto Arts Centre, Toronto, Canada, 19-20 August 2003
NAXOS 8.559184 [63’08]


 

It really is good to see Copland’s piano music getting the attention it deserves. As has been pointed out on more than one occasion, it is second only to his orchestral output in volume, and many critics consider these pieces to contain some of his best, and certainly most ‘serious’, writing.

This disc does not have the field to itself, though it will probably be the cheapest. Leo Smit’s 2-disc complete survey has dated sound and availability problems, so the nearest rival to Naxos is possibly Raymond Clarke’s very well received Divine Art recital, which has a big advantage in adding to these three works the early Passacaglia, well worth having and taking the running time to a more generous 77+ minutes. However, we all know Naxos’ price advantage and no-one grabbing this in their nearest store will be remotely disappointed, such is the quality of Benjamin Pasternak’s playing.

The earliest and in many ways grittiest piece here is the famous Variations of 1930. In Humphrey Burton’s illuminating biography of Leonard Bernstein, we learn what a key work this was for the 19-year-old Bernstein, who later wrote that ‘…a new world of music had opened up to me in this work – extreme, prophetic, clangorous, fiercely dissonant, intoxicating’. He would perform it from memory at many a Harvard party, recalling with a wry smile that ‘…I could empty the room, guaranteed, in two minutes.’ Whilst some of that early shock value has diminished, there is still no denying the power of this 12-minute masterpiece, which Copland biographer Howard Pollack refers to as ‘a defiant howl of a piece, rather Beethovenish in its balance of intellectual rigour and prophetic fervour’. It is precisely these qualities that distinguish Pasternak’s playing, where the structural whole is seen, rightly, as paramount but not at the expense of the teasing harmonic and rhythmic details that litter the 20 diverse variations.

The other two works here can be seen as direct descendants of the Variations. The massive Sonata, begun in 1939 and again championed by Bernstein, has similarly challenging dissonances but here the jazz and folk influences can be heard taking hold. In fact, Pasternak’s solidly authoritative playing leaves us, in the main, with memories of the hauntingly beautiful quieter music, soon to become a Copland hallmark, that so effectively tempers the percussive louder moments.

The biggest and most ambitious score, and also the composer’s last for piano, is the massive 30- minute Fantasy, which effectively encompasses the more austere traits of the Variations with the structural control and dreamy lyricism of the Sonata. It may seem an unwieldy piece to some, but the sheer explosion of ideas, coupled with the astonishing array of keyboard variety help to hold the attention completely. Pasternak is especially effective in balancing out the diverse material, keeping a suitable air of improvisation in much of the writing whilst providing a sense of line and logic with playing of razor-sharp clarity and precision. There is also a necessary feeling of controlled virtuosity in the playing, given that the work was intended for the dynamic young William Kappell.

The recording quality is generally good, full bodied and set within a fairly warm acoustic, and the piano copes well with the substantial demands made on it. As I said before, this disc is minus the obvious early work, but these three important scores are such obvious bedfellows that it’s doubtful you will miss it, especially given the high-calibre pianism on offer at the usual giveaway Naxos price.

Tony Haywood

see also review by Patrick Waller



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