The piano was at the heart of Copland’s composing, and this disc brings together his most important solo piano works: the explosive 1930 Variations from his first, brief burst of ‘constructivist’ modernism; the magisterial 1941 Sonata from the time of the ‘American’ ballet scores; and the ambitious 1957 Fantasy, a continuous span lasting over half an hour, from his austere later years. They are prefaced by the 1922 Passacaglia, written when he was studying with Nadia Boulanger, a well-worked if relatively faceless piece. The British pianist Raymond Clarke plays everything with rock-solid technique, a strong sense of purposeful movement, and outstanding clarity, both of phrasing and texture. He lacks only the touch of expressive, Romantic flexibility in simple melodies which Copland frequently invited with the marking ‘rubato’ or other instructions. The recording is adequate, but the extreme upper register (much used by Copland) catches too much of the hall acoustic and is not well integrated with the rest.
The benchmark for all these works would have been the late Leo Smit’s classic performances in his two-disc set of Copland’s complete piano music (Sony) but sadly this is currently out of the catalogue. Eric Parkin’s single-disc selection (Silva Screen) includes the Passacaglia, Variations and Sonata, in likeable but somewhat understated readings. Mark Anderson, in a live recital of Copland and Gershwin, gives an outstanding account of the Sonata, bringing out its lyricism without compromising its incisiveness. But Clarke’s whole programme, especially the rarely heard Fantasy, can be enthusiastically recommended. Performance: **** Sound ***