Aaron Copland’s fame rests almost entirely on consonant, approachable works such as Appalachian Spring and the Third Symphony. Throughout his career, however, he wrote music that was considerably less populist. Although some of these thornier works are orchestral (the serialist Connotations, for example, most were written for chamber ensembles or for solo piano. Divine Art’s new CD forswears Copland’s few pianistic sweetmeats entirely and goes directly to his most demanding works.
The Passacaglia was completed in 1922 during Copland’s studies with Nadia Boulanger. Biographer Howard Pollack calls it ‘a veritable textbook of contrapuntal devices’, and the composer himself owned that ‘it is not an easy piece to play’. ( A three-stave passage early in the work has been deemed well-nigh unplayable.) Nevertheless, Raymond Clarke moves past the notes themselves and creates an imposing, even monumental, effect.
The other three pieces form the core of Copland’s piano output. Variations (1930) was caviare to the general at its première. A four-note motif carries the work through 20 diverse variations and a coda. Pollack calls it ‘ a defiant howl of a piece, rather Beethovenish in its balance of intellectual rigor and prophetic fervor’. The massive Sonata, begun in 1939, is similarly challenging and frugal, although there are softening allusions to jazz and folk music. Leonard Bernstein championed it almost immediately.
The Piano Fantasy (1955-57) was Copland’s final masterpiece for solo piano. Here, the composer tempers by-the-numbers serialism with a both literally and figuratively ‘fantastic’ (yet finely controlled) explosion of musical ideas. Like Variations and the Sonata, this is a work that critics and musicologists love, but that most listeners have been slow to embrace.
Clarke is in very good company in this repertoire. Most comprehensive are Leo Smit, who was closely connected with the composer, and Nina Tichman. Gilbert Kalish’s steely recording of Variations is a must-hear, and Charles Fierro has received accolades too. Clarke’s competitive readings show impressive technical mastery and structural insight, with less emphasis on the music’s occasional hints of Americana. The engineering makes the piano tone sound glassy, but not distressingly so. The intelligent annotations are by Clarke himself.