Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Penguin Guide, January 2009

It is easy to be put off by the first few notes of the Piano Fantasy on the Naxos disc, for Benjamin Pasternack opens very percussively, emphasized by the bright recording. But the performance soon finds its own level, although it is more impetuous and volatile, indeed faster than with Raymond Clarke (29 minutes overall, instead of 33). Copland described it as ‘a spontaneous and unpremeditated sequence of events’, and it certainly is that here. The Sonata too is strongly characterized, especially the jazz-inspired central movement, and the work closes meditatively. The Variations make an enjoyable diverse final item. The sound, once one adjusts to its vivid presence, is fully acceptable, and this disc should suit bargain-hunters.

Jed Distler, September 2005

Aaron Copland's three major large-scale piano works count among the composer's greatest in any genre. Their jagged keyboard edges and austere lyricism best communicate in the hands of a virtuoso gifted with strong hands and patient ears. I'm certain Benjamin Pasternack's idiomatic mastery would have pleased the composer no end . . . Pasternack's subtle gradations in touch and gentle yet firm sustaining power in the Andante sostenuto command your attention. So does the authority with which he integrates and characterizes the Variations' radical swings in mood and texture . . . I can't imagine a better way to inexpensively acquire the three pillars of Copland's solo piano output in committed, rock solid performances.

Fanfare, September 2005

View PDF  

Gramophone, August 2005

View PDF  

Classic FM, August 2005

View PDF  

Patrick C Waller
MusicWeb International, June 2005

"The American composer Aaron Copland is best known for orchestral music. However he was also a fine pianist who wrote extensively for his instrument. Indeed some of his much loved orchestral music also exists in versions for the piano. Here we have a disc devoted to major works written exclusively for the piano. The idiom of these pieces will not be immediately recognizable to those familiar only with works such as Appalachian Spring – their austerity makes no concession to popular taste. In essence, this record explores the private side of Copland. It may come as a bit of a shock to those who have only encountered his most familiar works.

The Fantasy which opens the disc is one of Copland’s largest conceptions. The material started life as a planned concerto for William Kapell but when he was killed in a plane crash in 1953 Copland dropped the idea. Subsequently he reworked the sketches into a single long movement of three parts plus a coda. In this work Copland uses serial techniques and the main motif is derived from a ten-note falling and rising scale which is given very grandly at the outset. The central section is a kind of scherzo with trio following which the material of the opening is extensively reworked. The coda is slow, reflective and ultimately calm. This is surely one of the major piano works of the 20th century.

The Sonata took Copland two years to complete following his successes with Billy the Kid and Quiet City, works with which it has little in common. Dedicated to the playwright Clifford Odets, the composer gave the premiere in Buenos Aires in 1941. Within a three movement structure which has slow outer movements sandwiching a lively, jazz-inspired scherzo, forms are relatively conventional.

The Variations followed Copland’s period of study with Nadia Boulanger. The underlying theme is a five-note motif and twenty rapidly contrasting variations follow in short order. As with the other works on the disc, the music is less immediately accessible than one might expect but it repays repeated listening.

All these works make major technical demands of the pianist and the Fantasy in particular requires prolonged concentration and vision. Benjamin Pasternack seems equal to the challenges, providing deeply felt readings which penetrate to the heart of this personal music. The exemplary recorded sound has a very wide dynamic range. This is yet another highly recommendable disc in Naxos’s American Classics series."

Tony Haywood
MusicWeb International, June 2005

"It really is good to see Copland’s piano music getting the attention it deserves. As has been pointed out on more than one occasion, it is second only to his orchestral output in volume, and many critics consider these pieces to contain some of his best, and certainly most ‘serious’, writing.

This disc does not have the field to itself, though it will probably be the cheapest. Leo Smit’s 2-disc complete survey has dated sound and availability problems, so the nearest rival to Naxos is possibly Raymond Clarke’s very well received Divine Art recital, which has a big advantage in adding to these three works the early Passacaglia, well worth having and taking the running time to a more generous 77+ minutes. However, we all know Naxos’ price advantage and no-one grabbing this in their nearest store will be remotely disappointed, such is the quality of Benjamin Pasternak’s playing.

The earliest and in many ways grittiest piece here is the famous Variations of 1930. In Humphrey Burton’s illuminating biography of Leonard Bernstein, we learn what a key work this was for the 19-year-old Bernstein, who later wrote that ‘…a new world of music had opened up to me in this work – extreme, prophetic, clangorous, fiercely dissonant, intoxicating’. He would perform it from memory at many a Harvard party, recalling with a wry smile that ‘…I could empty the room, guaranteed, in two minutes.’ Whilst some of that early shock value has diminished, there is still no denying the power of this 12-minute masterpiece, which Copland biographer Howard Pollack refers to as ‘a defiant howl of a piece, rather Beethovenish in its balance of intellectual rigour and prophetic fervour’. It is precisely these qualities that distinguish Pasternak’s playing, where the structural whole is seen, rightly, as paramount but not at the expense of the teasing harmonic and rhythmic details that litter the 20 diverse variations.

The other two works here can be seen as direct descendants of the Variations. The massive Sonata, begun in 1939 and again championed by Bernstein, has similarly challenging dissonances but here the jazz and folk influences can be heard taking hold. In fact, Pasternak’s solidly authoritative playing leaves us, in the main, with memories of the hauntingly beautiful quieter music, soon to become a Copland hallmark, that so effectively tempers the percussive louder moments.

The biggest and most ambitious score, and also the composer’s last for piano, is the massive 30- minute Fantasy, which effectively encompasses the more austere traits of the Variations with the structural control and dreamy lyricism of the Sonata. It may seem an unwieldy piece to some, but the sheer explosion of ideas, coupled with the astonishing array of keyboard variety help to hold the attention completely. Pasternak is especially effective in balancing out the diverse material, keeping a suitable air of improvisation in much of the writing whilst providing a sense of line and logic with playing of razor-sharp clarity and precision. There is also a necessary feeling of controlled virtuosity in the playing, given that the work was intended for the dynamic young William Kappell.

The recording quality is generally good, full bodied and set within a fairly warm acoustic, and the piano copes well with the substantial demands made on it. As I said before, this disc is minus the obvious early work, but these three important scores are such obvious bedfellows that it’s doubtful you will miss it, especially given the high-calibre pianism on offer at the usual giveaway Naxos price."

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group