Piano Sonata No.2, "Concord, Mass., 1840-1860" 17 Songs:
The Things Our Fathers Loved
The Housatonic at Stockbridge
From The Swimmers
Memories (A Very Pleasant, B Rather Sad)
Serenity (A unison chant)
"1, 2, 3."
Songs my mother taught me
The Circus Band
Like a Sick Eagle
"A sound of a distant horn"
Soliloquy (or A Study in 7ths and Other Things)
A Farewell to Land
Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano) & Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Recorded November 2003 (Songs) and January 2004 in the Grosser Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna
CD No: WARNER CLASSICS 2564 60297-2 Duration: 79 minutes Reviewed: July 2004
Reviewed by Timothy Ball
'Beethovenian' and 'epic' are two epithets that might well be applied to Charles Ives's Second Piano Sonata. Published in 1920, it is a work which, like so much of Ives's music, looks forward to ideas which were to be adopted later in the century especially in the composer's native America (Frederic Rzewski comes to mind). These include an eclectic style and a penchant for quotation. But it was Ives's peculiar genius which somehow enabled him to ensure that the quotations do not stick out like sore thumbs (except where intended) but, rather, become part of a multi-faceted texture.
The most conspicuous quote, heard often and in many guises, is the opening motif of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Often deployed tempestuously, it is sometimes reflected upon and, at the start of the third movement, is the focus for what are, to all intents and purposes, sets of variations. Other quotations include those from hymn tunes, marches and parlour songs. All serve to heighten the sense of locality and atmosphere. Of course, the sonata is not just a series of quotations; there are the usual Ivesian hallmarks of sudden even violent contrasts between thorny, dense textures and sudden calm. Passages of radiant diatonicism alternate with highly chromatic harmonies and in one or two places note clusters. But these diverse ingredients are, perhaps perversely, contained within a traditional four-movement structure, but a structure, needless to say, stretched to suit the composer's very individual design.
Each movement bears the name of a different writer and, in Ives's own words, the sonata is "an attempt to present one person's impression of the spirit of the literature, the philosophy, and the men of Concord, Mass. of over a half-century ago".
One of the many ironies is that a work which contains such extremes of dissonance should be headed Concord, since placid moments are few and far between. Pierre-Laurent Aimard's great achievement in this performance of remarkable assurance and conviction is to weld these disparate elements into something
like a cohesive whole or as much cohesion as the music itself will allow.
Ives himself spoke of the commercially printed edition of 1947 as being "a guide to the real music," and so a certain degree of license and conjecture on the part of the performer is inevitable. Ives surely looks forward to John Cage in this regard. Aimard seizes the music and does not shirk from playing-up the more
turbulent passages indeed, he seems to positively revel in them with weighty tone and energetic delivery. He is equally effective in the more spare and reflective passages, although I would have welcomed a touch less sustaining pedal in places.
The brief contributions of viola and flute add colouristic variety towards the close of the first and fourth movements respectively. These parts are optional, but their inclusion certainly adds textural interest. At just over 48 minutes (in this performance), the Concord Sonata is not a work to be undertaken lightly by either performer or listener. It is to Aimard's distinction and credit that the music does not ramble as it can do but rather engages the attention and interest as to where it is going. As ever with Ives, the routes are quirky and unexpected but, in a performance of this integrity, one feels they are well worth exploring.
On this well-recorded disc, seventeen songs sung with poise, relish and character by Susan Graham precede the sonata.
Like Aimard, she does not shrink from plunging headlong into the fray literally so in From The Swimmers in which the piano lets forth a veritable torrent of aquatic imitation. She more than holds her own in the face of what are, on paper, sometimes impossibly unhelpful accompaniments. Such is Ives's notion of a song, on occasions, that he seems to find delight in placing many obstacles in the way of the singer. In the juxtaposition of voice and piano, an impression is given of two musical threads occurring simultaneously. And then the composer surprises with a
song of unabashed and tender expression such as Songs my mother taught me almost suggesting that it might be from a completely different creator from the one that wrote the boisterous Ann Street, in which the pianist makes
a couple of vocal contributions.
But then such apparent disparity is part and parcel of what makes Ives such an enduringly fascinating figure. He can hardly have dreamed that his music would receive performances of such finesse as here. The sonata and songs have been prepared with care and diligence, and this most welcome disc is both a worthy tribute to mark the 50th anniversary of Charles Ives's death and an ideal introduction to this rewarding repertoire.