Four thought-provoking American Piano Sonatas (anti-formulaic ‘soundings') from the pre-war, pre-Barber years when, depending on one's viewpoint and roots, to quote from Anthony Burton's booklet note, “America [was] the land of the clean sheet, the fresh start – of making things new.”
In the thirties the “rightness” of Aaron Copland's piano Variations set a trend – tough, gritty music, each verticalisation of notes hewn and faceted, every strand glassily focussed. Growing out of this abstract world, with moments of utopian glimmer, the later Piano Sonata (1939-41), from the period between Billy the Kid and Rodeo, presents bold ideas, lithe contrasts, and textures varying between solid, spare, scherzando and serene. Dispelling the debateable opinion of Copland as no more than “a modest giant among American composers”, it's a score that muses and hangs together well (should be programmed more), with a slow Finale of particular gravitas and beauty – plains music by starlight, the lone individual.
Hungry for knowledge, calling anyone's bluff, young Leonard Bernstein, Jewish-Ukrainian 'new' American boy, just turned twenty, defined enthusiasm, absorption, ears and intellect open to anything – from the classics to Copland, Marc Blitzstein to glee club, Aristophanes to Prall aesthetics. Living on a high wire, he defined the edge. Withheld from publication until 1979, his two-movement Piano Sonata (1937-38) kicks off athletically, dwells in fantasy, pursues cells and motifs, and closes in lyrically introspective mood. Henry Cowell-like tone-clusters and a determined fugue climax the second movement, a cogent structure that looks not only to late Beethoven but also, strangely presciently, to the conclusion of the Copland Sonata (which Bernstein recorded in 1947) and Hindemith's Ludus tonalis. Juvenilia maybe, but a brave canvas, with a monodic postludium of chilled pulchritude – the sound and pain of poetry (Conrad Aiken's poetry) never far away, a slow cigarette and a long whisky into the night.
Lou Harrison, student of Cowell and Schoenberg, long-standing friend of John Cage, champion of Ives, Varèse, Ruggles and Hovhaness, a man who believed that he felt “a responsibility to offer what I can to anyone who asks” and, whatever his personal hardships, practised his life by that philosophy, was receptive to all musics, all styles, all temperaments irrespective of time or place. At the time of writing his posthumously printed Third Piano Sonata (1938, edited 1970), living in San Francisco in a climate of “wizards and wildmen”, he was high on a cocktail of influences ranging from classical, modern and jazz to ethnic American and Mexican and the rituals and symbolism of Cantonese Opera. But it wasn't entirely a free-for-all. “Giving the listener a sense of improvisatory freedom girded by an internal logic” (Leta E. Miller) was fundamental to his aesthetic. Like Copland's Sonata’s this is a slow-quick-slow work. The middle movement takes the form of a relatively traditional da capo Scherzo, but one more densely grained than Copland or Bernstein. The ruminative Finale combines bare octaves with vaguely acid harmonic interjections, as crushed and bleakly forsaken as anything Bernstein – Harrison's marginally younger East Coast contemporary – was writing around the same time in Harvard. Dispensing with bar-lines and dynamics, orbiting a four-note left-hand riff, the Largo Ostinato (1937, revised 1970) weaves a Satie-like spell of unruffled waves approaching and receding – hypnotic.
Charles Ives's Three-Page Sonata (1905, edited Cowell 1949, revised John Kirkpatrick 1975 – the latter version used for this recording), comprises three sections, quick-slow-quick, played without a break. Its European-free landscape – from stones and dirt-tracks past woodland glades and still-pools to a gruff dysfunctional march lumbering its way from anti-Sousa chromatics to C-major – remains defiantly like no other. The Celestial Railroad (“Phantasy”, 1921-23), a reworking of the 'Hawthorne' movement from the ‘Concord’ Sonata, draws on Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1843 allegorical short story of the same title, with an added Ivesian twist at the finish when (the dream over) life, the Fourth of July, and a razzmatazz of bands take over in a raucous mosaic of Doppler shifts and Schumannesque drop-out.
Nathan Williamson does a sterling job. He understands the mould-breaking environment of this repertory, and offers committed insight, opting for big, rounded bass sonorities and crystalline treble vistas. He likes to argue in a lean way, but in more spacious passages (for example the Finale of the Copland, the postludium of the Bernstein, the Largo Ostinato, and the slower sections of both Ives works) finds time to let events breathe, not shy to open the pedal, release harmonics, or lend richness of colour, nuance and cadence to a phrase. When fleetness of fingerwork is required, he can be as incisively articulated as anyone. Generally he prefers measured tempos – which in the case of the Harrison Sonata ideally accommodate the composer's qualifying remarks: “singing/rugged/very singing and solemn.” The Copland is more protracted (markedly so in places) than Bernstein, Fleisher, Foldes, Smit or Pasternack; the Bernstein (nearer Cooperstock) is longer than Leann Osterkamp; and the Ives Three-Page (close to Lythgoe and Trythall) is slower than Lawson, Szidon and Mandel (by more than two minutes). Given Williamson's integrity, his grasp of the larger drama, these broader timings don't bother me. More often than not I find them encouraging foregrounds and undercurrents – often gabbled (the end of The Celestial Railroad is comfortably better judged, and better engineered, than Anthony de Mare's alternative account) – to speak with clarity and purpose.