Aaron Copland's piano music has never attracted the audiences of his orchestral compositions. You can offer various reasons for this: orchestration was perhaps Copland's strongest suit of all; his music was essentially programmatic and evocative (while the piano music is mostly abstract); much of the piano music comes from Copland's less popular early and late periods. When it's well done, though, Copland's piano music can force you to focus on the compositional technique of this hard-to-classify American figure, undistracted by national imagery. Pianist David Northington, a professor at the University of Tennessee, does an exemplary job here, focusing in this first volume on early works. He includes the two Copland piano pieces that do get played with some frequency: the Piano Variations of 1930 and the Piano Sonata of 1939-1941, both ambitious modernist works. But the real news is in the almost unknown short pieces that fill out the album. Much of Copland's music during this period was influenced by jazz, and the Sentimental Melody of 1929 (track 7) sounds almost like Gershwin. The opening piece, The Cat and the Mouse: Scherzo humoristique, seems to reflect the influence of novelty piano. But what's interesting is how the rigorous, modernist side of Copland's musical personality coexists in these little pieces with his populist side. Consider the Petit Portrait, composed by the 21-year-old Copland in 1921. Written for a friend named Abraham, it reworks a three-note motif, A-B-E, in a variety of guises; it's both pleasantly evocative and very tightly constructed. This was, of course, the appeal of Copland's big orchestra hits (Appalachian Spring responds very well to pitch-class analysis). Put the Piano Variations into this context, preceded by the Passacaglia Copland wrote while under the tuition of Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and they seem to prefigure the serialism of his old age. You can see how the piano sonata summed up everything Copland had learned up to that time, and how he was ready to create a new language that was populist but totally fresh and without reference to established styles. In short, this is a strong recommendation for the serious Copland fan, a classification that encompasses quite a proportion of listeners who've ever been to a concert of American orchestral music.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim