Most people know Aaron Copland’s Rodeo and Billy the Kid (as well they should–they’re perfectly wonderful pieces, popular in the best possible way). Surprisingly few concertgoers, though, are familiar with the abstract instrumental pieces of Copland’s middle years, which are “abstract” only in the sense that they weren’t written to accompany ballets. In fact, you’ll find in them the same sweetly austere harmonies and long, leaping arches of melody that make Copland’s music so immediately distinctive and quintessentially American in sound and style.
I recommend the Violin Sonata of 1943, which Isaac Stern recorded in 1968 with Copland himself at the piano (he was a fine pianist, crisp and unmannered). It doesn’t get played much in concert, and I don’t know why, because it’s extraordinarily beautiful, from the gentle open-prairie lyricism of the first movement to the stomping vigor of the finale. Maybe it isn’t flashy enough for your typical hot-shot virtuoso. All I know is that the Copland Violin Sonata never fails to bring tears to my eyes.