OzArts Review

The other evening, I conducted a snap mini-poll among some friends. What, I asked, were the two works that sprang first to mind on hearing the name Aaron Copland? All of the eight polled named Appalachian Spring as a first choice, and, as second, three chose Fanfare for the Common Man, two named Rodeo and the remaining three opted for El Salon Mexico. But when I asked how many of Copland’s works for solo piano they could name, none of the eight – each an enthusiastic and experienced follower of music – could come up with an answer.

Passacaglia, with its stark and sombre octaves in the left hand, conjures up images of implacable, giant-like strides across a landscape. Here, Clarke, at a superb Steinway piano, hurls massive chunks of sound through the speakers; it’s presented with immense authority, taking all Copland’s contrapuntal ingenuity in his stride.

Copland’s Piano Variations is music that ranges from the tender and lyrical to measures that bristle with brusqueness, music that startles with, for want of better words, its sneering, in-your-face quality. Other variations irresistibly call up images of torment, of a barely contained hysteria. And there are, too, moments which would be an entirely appropriate soundtrack for a movie scene depicting vindictiveness and spite.

Somewhere, Copland has written that for his Variations to succeed in performance, the whole should seem to be greater than the sum of its constituent parts. On the evidence of this recording, Raymond Clarke succeeds in this – and succeeds well. Certainly, this is a performance to which I’ve returned again and again, with each hearing providing fresh insights into a work that ought to be far more frequently heard.

Copland’s Fantasy runs for just over half an hour. Much of it is couched in improvisatory-like terms, music that takes the listener across constantly changing, sometimes startling musical territory. In less authoritative hands, this could well sound meandering, formless and tedious.

Clarke, happily, has a rare gift, an ability to give point and meaning to even the most abstruse and esoteric of writing, and succeeds in conveying a sense of logic, no mean feat in so complex a work. The score is dotted with directions to the pianist: “hurried and tense”, “gradual return to poetic, drifting”, to which Clarke responds with an answering depth of expressiveness. It’s a major achievement.

Clarke, in fact, turns the work into musical gold with magnificent washes of sound, moments of heart-easing tenderness with, elsewhere, tone that has an altogether pleasing needle-sharp, diamond-bright quality. I especially admired Clarke’s exponential skill some twenty minutes into the work where we hear what sounds for all the world like some frenzied carillon and muscularly emphasized note clusters.

This ability to bring cogency and clarity to what in other hands could sound impenetrable, is impressive. This is musical problem-solving at a high level.

Neil Butterworth once described Copland’s Piano Sonata as ‘abstract music of ascetic introversion’. And who, hearing the work, would gainsay him? Although not without its strident moments and lively, syncopated rhythms, it is the musing quietness of much of the writing that lingers longest in the memory. The central vivace is a delight with its puckish, nimble outbursts that are the quintessence of impudence.

Hopefully, Clarke’s accounts of Copland’s works will gain them the audience they deserve. Certainly, they’ve languished too long in the shadows of Copland’s more frequently heard works.

—Neville Cohn