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Charles Ives: Four Sonatas by Various Artists

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Reviewed on 15th November 2011.


Charles Ives: Four Sonatas

By Various Artists

Hilary Hahn seems to be championing new, modern and often misunderstood music of late. In 2008, she recorded the opinion-dividing Violin Concerto of Arnold Schoenberg, about which the great Jascha Heifetz himself said one would need six fingers in order to play. Hilary did it without said mutation and won a Grammy for the recording. She has had two violin concertos written for her--by virtuoso bassist Edgar Meyer in 2005 and Jennifer Higdon in 2010. This year she has commissioned 27 encores for violin and piano from 27 different composers, and now she has recorded these four wonderful, yet complex, sonatas for violin and piano by Charles Ives (1874-1954), and all this whilst mastering the more traditional violin soloists' repertoire, too.

The sound throughout this CD is incredible. The recording itself has a crystalline clarity which allows every note and inflection its own world of space in which to breathe. Hilary's sound is wonderful and her playing unmistakeable, as always. Her sound, and such descriptions are always frustratingly vague and abstract, envelopes the listener. One feels they can almost step inside Hilary's sound and marvel at its details. As well as having a unique tone, her ways of phrasing and expressing music are unique. She has a musical sensitivity, a care for the composer's vision, a lack of ego, but a distinctive stamp regardless.

It is a welcome surprise to hear a dry acoustic on this recording--far drier than any of Hahn's others. Her fine violin, made in 1864 by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, is at its most natural and beautiful. Pianist Valentina Lisitsa's piano (a Bosendorfer in the photos in the CD sleeve, but I'm not sure whether she played it on the recording) has an incredibly rich bass register. I usually keep a couple of books on top of one of my speakers; I think it was a particularly bass-heavy passage in the first or second track that sent them toppling to their carpet-y fate. Every register of this piano sings with rich tone and perfect clarity. It responds perfectly to Lisitsa's well-honed and sensitive touch, which allows her to convey with ease the stormy and sweet extremes of this music. It is worth mentioning that she is hardly Hilary's accompanist on this recording--there are lengthy solos for the piano and when both are playing they are equally at the forefront, playing in tandem. The natural sound lends this entire recording a feeling of intimacy, as though you're in a small room with the instruments, as opposed to them reaching you from across a big, anonymous concert hall, which perfectly befits Charles Ives' music.

Now for Mr Ives; if you don't know much about him, he was only a part-time composer, really. He was often busy running a successful insurance company in the States, but he liked to retire to the keyboard to write radical, complex and visionary music. He seemed to have a love for American life, nostalgia, nature and fedoras. His music is, I am ashamed to admit, quite beyond this reviewer's analytical capacity, but I will try to describe it, and perhaps I'll be able to manage a little analysis: his music is at once modern and old--it reaches back to bygone days while simultaneously lurching forward to modern dissonances and complexities. It features many "familiar and unfamiliar" melodies, often old folk tunes or Stephen Foster creations, swimming around in its sonorous textures.

Sometimes they are plain to see (hear?) and sometimes they are disguised, hidden or fragmented in some way, which sometimes makes them sound distant and occasionally eerie, as if we are hearing them through the shroud of the past itself. Often a melody will enter and it will be disturbed or interrupted in some way before its simple, natural conclusion by some skip in the pulse or phrase, or a harmonic clash with another part. These Ives-ian tricks and techniques create various effects; they are always interesting, often sardonically humorous and sometimes unsettling, but I find they are at their most effective when they suggest bittersweet emotions, such as a fond retrospective of the past and sadness at its fading.

Ives had a habit, nurtured by his father, George Ives, of putting two completely different pieces together to be played simultaneously, creating a bi or polytonal effect. He was also interested in unrelated sounds coming from two different sources and areas. George, a US Army bandleader and himself a musical maverick, would often get two marching bands to play two different tunes and get them to march in opposite directions, so he would hear the parts--at first far apart from one another--gradually converge and separate again. These early ideas characterise all Charles' later music. His orchestral works usually call for a few performers to play from off stage somewhere. Perhaps these ideas are so compelling to us because they resemble the real world, where we do hear several sounds that don't neatly stack up on top of each other; we hear some birdsong from one direction at the same time as a guy operates a pneumatic drill elsewhere; the musical equivalents of both of these sounds we would expect to hear in Ives, right? Ives is full of pneumatic drills.

The parts mostly coincide so seamlessly, thanks to the composer and the performers, a casual listener may fail to notice how complex their fusion was. To quote Hilary's contribution to the liner notes, "When we got our hands on the sheet music we attempted to read through it. That effort quickly stalled. Ives' music may sound at times transparent, but his notation turned out to be tremendously complex, filled with exacting markings for accents, articulations, disjointed dynamics, rhythmic intricacies, and changes of tempo. Clearly Ives knew what he wanted at every point--and he wanted to make sure his performers would know, too. Squinting together at the piano score, Valentina and I struggled to understand which notes went together with which, where phrases began and ended, and how to produce the expression Ives wanted." One of the joys and frustrations of listening to and reviewing Ives' music is the fact that it is in a constant state of change stylistically, harmonically, rhythmically, dynamically, in terms of tempo, etc. So, does one attempt to review every aspect of it? One would surely fill a good-sized book doing so. The only alternative is to resort to generalities. Here we go:

Sonata No. 1 makes a peaceful Andante entry, but very quickly steps into stranger harmonic and metric pastures. Throughout, the violin flits between stark leaps of large intervals and stepwise melodies. The parts seem to constantly be searching, occasionally settling into a semblance of a hymn, traditional song, or some such 'popular' material, but they then fly off into new territory before they can be pinned down. The second movement, a Largo Cantabile, "tries to relive the sadness of the old civil war days," in Ives' words. The opening pentatonic, fiddle tune melody, which I am sure was in an episode of The Waltons, evokes the period and place with uncanny precision. The third movement is energetic and, dare I say it, almost joyous, regardless of harmonic clashes and reflective episodes. Generally in this sonata the piano, and the violin to some extent, operate predominantly in their lower registers, which creates very thick, dark textures.

Sonata No. 2 is the only one whose movements are awarded the privilege of titles in addition to tempo indications. The first movement, titled 'Autumn' and marked Adagio Maestoso, sets a reflective tone which is contrasted by the dance-like 'In The Barn'. The third movement, 'The Revival', strikes me as the emotional centrepiece of the sonata--it is a thoughtful and intense Largo. It encapsulates what I described earlier about how Ives includes a hymn-tune--'Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing' in this case--played over the backdrop of jarring and contrasting harmony, creating startling emotional effects. There are times when the cascading harmonies of the piano and the violin's hymn-tune melody achieve the transcendent.

According to Hilary's sleeve notes, Sonata No. 3 was the one she was initially drawn to and learned first. It does come across as the most comfortably, confidently and enthusiastically played of the set. It is the longest and probably the most involved and complex of the sonatas. The first movement is a twelve minute piece which has four verses, in hymn-like style. Each verse has a separate tempo indication. They are: Adagio, Andante, Allegro and Adagio again. Each verse (and it's hard to know, at least without the score, where they exactly begin and end, but I think I have a semblance of a structure mapped out in my head now) is separated by the same "short refrain" that begins the piece--broken piano chords, shortly joined by a melancholy melody, played by the violin at the start of the first and third verses, but by the right hand of the piano in the second and fourth. For a significant portion of the second, the violin remains silent until it explodes with some hugely enjoyable forte double-stops. It does the same in the fourth, but enters much more gently and lyrically, and comes to a pleasantly surprising placid close. The second movement is an energetic and joyous dance, with plenty of pedalled bass notes, forte playing and virtuosic runs of notes all over key and fingerboard. It is thrilling. The third movement opens contemplatively, almost vaguely, if such a description can be applied to music. It can though. I just did it, dummy. It builds a delicate structure which eventually comes crashing down in a storm of fortissimo discords. Ives describes it as a "free fantasia," which sounds like a tautology to me, Charlie.

It was very kind of Ives to put his simplest sonata, No. 4, after his most demanding. He wrote this piece, charmingly entitled 'Children's Day at the Camp Meeting', for his then eleven year old nephew, Moss White Ives, whose name I envy. The first movement is a foot-tapping good time, if the foot can keep up with the changes of timing. Maybe it's more accurately described as foot-tapping good times. The second movement is the most emotionally tense. There is a quote from the CD's liner notes, presumably from Ives, that tells of combining the hymn 'Yes, Jesus Loves Me' with "out-door sounds of nature on those summer days--the west wind in the pines and the brook...and maybe...the distant voices of the farmers across the hill..." The character of this quote captures this movement and much of Charles Ives' other music better than I feel I managed to, which is why I'm including it. The third movement, a delightful little ditty that explicitly features 'Shall We Gather at the River' throughout, is remarkable in its relative simplicity. The ending is rampant, loud and boisterous, but is suddenly cut off mid-melody, giving way to silence.

So what did I think of this CD? Well hang on a sec, I'll tell you. Obviously there is a wealth of musical material to delve into here, and it is played stunningly by two outstanding musicians at the top of their game. So what's not to love about this CD? Sure, Ives' music can be a little hard on the ears, but I find it extremely listenable, and I don't consider myself a dissonance connoisseur. There are hours and hours, nay, years and years of fascination and delight in this album. You certainly get your approx. 10's worth. If CDs like this keep getting released, and the populace develops and maintains good taste and aesthetic appreciation, then there should be no cause for concern amongst the currently panic-filled arenas of Classical Music Sales and Physical Music Sales (as opposed to digital). That reminds me actually, I was going to say, but forgot, but have now re-remembered, that perhaps more CDs like this--featuring young performers playing relatively new and interesting music (it's only about one hundred years old)--may help to dust the cobwebs from the unfortunate image that has come to characterise Classical Music in some people's eyes--that of austerity, powdered wigs and Viennese Classicism.



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Hilary Hahn