Ives
Piano Sonata No.2, "Concord, Mass., 1840-1860"
Varied Air and Variations
The Celestial Railroad
Four Transcriptions from 'Emerson', No.1
Steven Mayer (piano)

Recorded on 30 and 31 January 2002 in the Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto, Canada
CD No: NAXOS 8.559127
Duration: 73 minutes
Reviewed: January 2005
It may seem odd to immediately commend a disc for its 'couplings', but this Naxos release contains important recordings of pieces which derive from the Concord Sonata written after Ives had completed his initial version of the latter. Whilst these are not première recordings, there are not many others around, and they make eminently sensible and instructive pendants to the main work on the disc.
The strangest of these pieces is that entitled Varied Air and Variations which is also aptly descriptive, since the music lurches from dense dissonance to gentle lyricism and angular widely-leaping melodic phrases with almost alarming rapidity. Ives was deliberately poking fun at audiences who found 'modern music' disagreeable. Steven Mayer captures the quirkiness and succeeds in lending the piece a degree of cohesion.
The Celestial Railroad re-visits music from the 'Hawthorne' movement of the Concord Sonata, which was also to find its way into Ives's Fourth Symphony. Here again the juxtaposition of apparently disparate elements can be unsettling, but seemingly holds no terrors for Mayer who often sounds as if he has more than a mere two hands at his disposal. Anyone familiar with the Fourth Symphony's second movement will recognise significant passages re-worked, but the music also sounds perfectly convincing in this solo piano version, delivered as it is here with such panache.
'Emerson' is the title of the sonata's first movement, and the first of four transcriptions re-works material from the sonata's opening paragraphs. A pity there was no room for the others on this CD, as Steven Mayer communicates complete empathy with and conviction for this often-thorny soundworld.
Mayer's conception of the Concord Sonata itself is on the spacious side. At just over 50 minutes, this is in marked contrast to John Kirkpatrick's performance on a 1968 Columbia LP which clocks in at 38 minutes. Kirkpatrick gave the public première of the sonata in 1939 and knew the composer whose piano playing he described as "deft, flitting … often seeming to be all over the keyboard all at once."
But Mayer does not sound 'deliberate' in any kind of hesitating way. On the contrary, he takes the opportunity to weigh and relish moments of repose and tranquillity. Thus the gentle third movement – ‘The Alcotts' – has an affectingly tender quality and one without parody. Some find Ives's 'homespun' moments to be cues for mockery, but Mayer takes the composer's sincerity at face-value and delivers a reading of touching poignancy, an attribute he finds elsewhere, not least in the sonata's closing pages.
However, Mayer does not fight shy of the more raucous passages – of which there are plenty in this work; indeed, the gentler moments are all the more telling for being in contrast to the degree of agitation and struggle Mayer brings to the 'Emerson' and 'Hawthorne' movements. I hasten to add that this should not imply there is a sense of effort about Stephen Mayer's playing. On the contrary, he is assured and confident, and has clearly thought-out his interpretation with great care, diligence and perception.
This Naxos issue comes in the wake of two others in recent months: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Warner) and Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion). Hamelin's coupling is Samuel Barber's Piano Sonata, whilst Aimard includes a selection of Ives’s songs captivatingly sung by Susan Graham. Aimard emphasises the radical, 'modernistic' aspects of the Concord Sonata and includes the optional parts for viola and flute. Hamelin has the flute only and places the sonata in the 'late-romantic' era in which it was composed.
Stephen Mayer does not have the optional instruments, but this does not detract in any way from the integrity of his performance which successfully melds the approaches of his rivals. Indeed, with its appropriate couplings and warm and sympathetic recorded sound, this Naxos release is a real bargain and can be unhesitatingly recommended.

 

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