Raymond Clarke’s recordings of Shostakovich and Szymanowski have brought forth critical acclaim (both were issued on the Athene label). This all-Copland disc from Divine Art does not disappoint. It gathers together four major pieces on one disc of 77 minutes’ playing time. Divine Art provide faultless production values, from the entirely apposite and tasteful cover of New York (taken from the top of the World Trade Center, destroyed 10 days after this recording session), to the booklet notes by the pianist himself. From the recording information given by Divine Art, this disc was put down in one day. If that is indeed the case, Clarke’s achievement is all the more remarkable.
The four pieces are played in chronological order. The Passacaglia, written while the composer was in his early twenties and dedicated to his then teacher Nadia Boulanger, works remarkably well, not least perhaps because the formal constraints of the chosen form rein in Copland’s manner (he can on occasion show a propensity towards the diffuse). Clarke gives a strong yet carefully shaded account that grows to a very imposing ‘processional’ towards the end. The recording, also, is beyond criticism, full and spacious yet detailed.
The Variations brings immediate contrast. Here a sparer, quasi-atonalist, almost Webernian atmosphere elicits a more muscular performance from Clarke (which also, however, includes some delicate pianissimo playing). The conceit of putting the first Variation before the exposition of the theme itself is not mere compositional trickery, but entirely in keeping with the elusive ethos of the work. Every note not only speaks but is carefully weighted in this performance.
The Piano Sonata is a major work (Bernstein, no less, recorded it for RCA early in his career). It is true that Clarke here comes directly in competition with Leon Fleisher (Philips Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century 456 775-2), but taken in the context of the present programme he is entirely convincing. Clarke emphasises the contrasts of this piece, being meltingly, hauntingly lyrical at times, spikily rhythmic at others. More than anything, though, he brings out the granite-like structure of the work, enjoying the spiky, dance-like rhythms along the way. If the middle movement (Vivace), is more immediately approachable, the finale is contrastingly bare, more ‘lonely’ music. The immensely delicate close is guaranteed to haunt the memory.
The mere title of Piano Fantasy probably will not prepare the unwary for a 33-minute piece. Nevertheless, that’s what it is. Dedicated to the memory of William Kapell, its proclamatory opening is enough to wake one up after the dream-like dissolve of the Sonata’s close. Despite its length, it is compelling from first to last. Clarke is completely unapologetic in his ruggedness, which makes the evocations of calm all the more effective. It was a brave, yet it turns out inspired, decision to end the recital with this work.
My recording of the month, without a shadow of a doubt. For anyone who has yet to experience the wonders of Copland’s music for piano, here is the place to start.