Piano Sonata No.2, "Concord, Mass., 1840-1860" * Barber
Piano Sonata, Op.26
Marc-André Hamelin (piano) with Jaime Martin (flute) *
Recorded 5-6 April 2004 in Henry Wood Hall, London
CD No: HYPERION CDA67469 Duration: 62 minutes Reviewed: October 2004
Reviewed by Timothy Ball
As is so often the case with classical releases, this Hyperion issue appears in the wake of an outstanding Concord Sonata from Pierre-Laurent Aimard on Warner Classics. While Susan Graham joins Aimard on winning form in a well-chosen selection of Ivess songs, Marc-André Hamelin chooses Barber's only sonata for piano; music as far removed from Ives as may be imagined.
Barber apparently had little or no time for his elder compatriot, but both sonatas on this disc may justifiably be termed 'American classics'. The taut structure of Barber's conception is emphasised by Hamelin in a performance that leaves little time for lingering and focuses instead on thematic delineation. It is good to hear the various contrapuntal lines articulated with such clarity and purpose. The first movement is both strong and animated, as befits the Allegro energico marking, and both melodic and bass elements are given due and equal weight. The turbulence that often seems to be just below the surface of this apparently ordered music is allowed to emerge at the appropriate points, and Hamelin demonstrates no little virtuosity at such moments. The second movement is replete with delicate touches, and nimble finger-work is put to the service of the music, to excellent effect. Barber's pensive slow movement rises to a passionate climax, one that is not merely clamorous in this thoughtful reading. The fugal opening of the finale finds the various 'voices' sounding clearly, whilst the tempestuous conclusion has all the vehemence one might wish. Altogether, this is a thoroughly convincing and satisfying performance.
The same might apply Hamelin's reading of the Ives (his second recording). He manages to integrate the various thematic snatches and fragments into an unusually convincing whole. The kaleidoscopic nature of Ives's material is not allowed to become disparate and there is a real sense of a sonata-like 'struggle', rather than effortful dispatching of passages posing seemingly insuperable technical challenges. But this is no poker-faced delivery of Ives's myriad invention; indeed there are moments of captivating humour, especially in the second, fast 'Hawthorne' movement, whose frolics and fantasy are engagingly captured and persuasively dispatched.
Conversely, the more wistful, reflective passages are given with a touching, inner tenderness which is most affecting. The opening of 'The Alcotts' is nostalgically poignant, as is the conclusion of the whole sonata. Here, Jaime Martin's flute makes an expressive contribution. The instrument seems to have been slightly distantly placed, but is no less effective for that.
In the first movement, the 'ad lib' viola phrases are omitted Tabea Zimmermann joins Aimard, no less, at this point.
If Aimard presents the sonata in a more forceful way, emphasising the radical nature of the music and placing it firmly within twentieth-century precincts, Hamelin suggests that the work belongs more to the late Romantic era. Each performance is perfectly valid, and I am glad to have both.