Aaron Copland (1900 -- 1990) is best known for his populist works, such as Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Billy the Kid, and Old American Songs, that incorporate American folk idiom into a classical style. As inspiring as these works are, they do not represent all of Copland. Aaron Copland was a learned, modernist composer who had studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger in the early 1920's. In addition to his popular, accessible compositions, he wrote experimental, austure works showing his mastery of serialism and other components of 20th century style.
Among Copland's modernist works are the three piano compositions on this CD written at widely-spaced times in his career. These three works are deeply personal and tightly written. They make frequent use of serial technique, which Copland combines with tonal sections, and shifting rhythms (the bar indications change every few measures). The works make use of deep, open harmonies particularly in the lower register of the piano, and every note tells. These austure works give the feeling of solitude, of meditiation, of spacial distance and of personal expansiveness. They are essential works of American piano music.
The performer, pianist Benjamin Pasternak, is on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music and he plays this intense music with feeling and understanding. My fellow reviewers below prefer other readings for some of this music. Be that as it may, this CD presents Copland's major works for solo piano on one CD, well-performed, and at a low price. It is an ideal way for the newcomer to Twentieth Century American music to get to know three seminal works.
The earliest of the three works is the short (11 minute) Piano Variations composed in 1930 when Copland was 30. This work consists of an eleven-measure theme followed by 20 variations based upon four notes -- E -- C -- D# -- C# -- sounded loudly and slowly at the beginning of the work. Tempos and rhythms shift throughout as the four-note theme is repeated in different patterns and guises. The work is tightly written as the variations flow seamlessly from one to another. Copland stated most of his work on this piece consisted in ordering and organizing the variations in a coherent pattern as opposed to composing the variations themselves. The theme and variations conclude about nine minutes into the work. They are followed by a lengthy majestic coda which closes with loud held chords.
Copland's three-movement piano sonata dates from 1941, more that ten years subsequent to the piano variations. This three movement work has the austure, highly reflective character of the earlier piano work, but its range is broader and it is more lyrical. By the time of the piano sonata, Copland had already composed some of his more popular scores, including Billy the Kid, and El Salon Mexico. The first movement opens with a slow, chordal, solemn theme followed by a more lyrical second theme. These themes form the basis of an extensive movement which includes contrasts between swirling figures and runs in the upper register of the piano and heavy, slow chords and notes in the bass. The second movement is a scherzo based upon an opening fluttering figure and has a jazzy feel. The finale, andante sostenuto, is slow and serious. It has a feeling of interiority, wide spaces, and of a composer who knew what it meant to be alone. The opening material of the first movement returns to conclude the work in a close of great peace and acceptance.
The piano fantasy dates from 1955 -- 1957, over a decade after the sonata, and was composed after Copland had composed most of his folk-idiom tinged music, including his opera, "The Tender Land" (1954). It is a lengthy work, about 30 minutes, consisting of a single movement; and it returns to the introspection of the variations and the sonata. The fantasy is a largely serial work based upon a ten-note pattern stated at the outset in slow, deep tones. The work succeeds both in having an improvisatory character and in conveying a sense of tightness, close organization, and discipline. The fantasy is a seamless work which moves through three closely interrelated sections. In the opening part, the tenor slowly shifts from the long, slow opening, through a more lyrical section, through a rapid driving third section. This is followed by a scherzo leading to some highly passionate writing, and a quiet, introspective long concluding section which brings back some of the opening material. Copland makes full use of the sonorities of the piano in long, single tones interspersed with brilliant runs and arpeggios. This is a difficult work which rewards the demands it places upon the listener and performer.
This CD will introduce the listener to a side of Aaron Copland that may be unfamiliar and to three of the great works of the piano literature of the Twentieth Century.