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Ives, Concord Sonata

available at Amazon
C. Ives, Concord Sonata, op. 19/Barber, Piano Sonata, op. 26, Marc-André Hamelin (with Jaime Martin, flute), released September 14, 2004
available at Amazon
C. Ives, Concord Sonata, op. 19, and Songs, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Susan Graham, Tabea Zimmermann, Emmanuel Pahud, released May 11, 2004
Several people have released recordings of the second piano sonata by Charles Ives, which he subtitled "Concord, Mass., 1840-60" (1904-15, published in 1920). However, I think that the best recordings of this transcendent work that one could hope to own were both released last year. We should always be lucky enough to choose between performances by Marc-André Hamelin and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, both of whom have more than enough intelligence and technique to give excellent accounts of this strange and often difficult piece. Unfortunately, we are not very good about choosing at Ionarts. If you have to choose, here are some thoughts.

The idea of a sonic landscape of a specific place and time -- Concord, Massachusetts, from 1840 to 1860 -- is a typically Ivesian gesture. The renegade American composer was Proustian, in the sense that his music, heavily laden with self-references and quotations or mutations of other music from classical to popular, is often about remembering. In the case of the Concord sonata, it is not only a time and place that Ives evokes, but the writings of great Transcendentalist authors who lived there: in the order of the movements, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Alcott's (Branson and Louisa May), and Henry David Thoreau. Ives grew up in Danbury, Connecticut, when the writings of these Concord authors were still quite recent. At one point this typically New England sensibility in some way was a generally American one, but I'm not so sure that that is true anymore.

Concord SonataEmersonHawthorneThe AlcottsThoreauTotal

Also on Ionarts:

Charles T. Downey, Thomas Meglioranza at the Phillips (Ives songs) (December 13, 2005)

Frank Pesci, Jr., A Big Plate of Americana for My Birthday (Three Places in New England, Boston Symphony) (October 8, 2005)

Jens F. Laurson, Marc-André Hamelin in New York (August 4, 2005)

Charles T. Downey, Alex Ross on Ives and the Pulitzer (June 7, 2004)

Charles T. Downey, Ives (May 21, 2004)

Jens F. Laurson, Do Something Like Men! (Ives, second string quartet, Colorado Quartet) (May 20, 2004)

Jens F. Laurson, Stars and Strings (Ives, first string quartet, Leipzig Quartet) (April 18, 2004)

Jens F. Laurson, Marc-André Hamelin at the National Gallery of Art (January 18, 2004)
The differences between the two recordings are fairly obvious from the disc timings. Each movement in Hamelin's recording is shorter than Aimard's, totalling up to about five minutes less over all four movements. Hamelin's tempi are almost all brisker, sometimes maniacally so, and the result is an audibly gutsier, if less polished, performance. The end of the second movement ("Hawthorne") is some of the wildest, unbridled playing I have ever heard, almost lunatic. In the notes for the published score, Ives writes (reminding me at least of some of the crazier marks left by Satie):
For the most part, this movement is supposed to be played as fast as possible and not too literally. Marks of tempo, expression, etc. are used as little as possible. If the score itself, the preface or an interest in Hawthorne suggest nothing, marks may only make things worse. It is not intended that the relation 2:1 between the 32nd and 16th notes here be held to always literally. The use of the sustaining pedal is almost constantly required.
If Americans have read anything by Hawthorne, it would likely be his critique of Puritan social strictures, The Scarlet Letter. In Essays before a Sonata, a set of thoughts on the literature that inspired the work that was published with the score in 1920, Ives states clearly that Hawthorne's "basic theme [...] that has to do with the influence of sin upon the conscience" is "not attempted in our music." What Ives had in mind were the more Gothic adventure stories for which Hawthorne was also known. He lists Feathertop, The Celestial Railroad, The Seven Vagabonds, Circe's Palace, and a few others. In case you are not confused enough yet, he adds that it may be "something about the ghost of a man who never lived, or about something that never will happen, or something else that is not."

In the first movement ("Emerson"), Ives adds the following note for one motif: "This is but one of Emerson's sudden calls for a Transcendental Journey [...] almost as though the Mountains of the Universe were shouting as all of Humanity rises to behold the 'Massive Eternities' and the 'Spiritual Immensities'." Hamelin's rendition is reckless at times, more about the soul struggling to grasp "spiritual immensities" than anything concrete. His approach may not be intellectual because the intellect may have little place in Ives's conception of the Concord sonata. At the same time, much of the detail in the score -- snatched quotations, inner voices, dynamic shading -- is frankly impossible to realize at the tempi Hamelin chooses, even for Hamelin, and the man is capable of a whole lot.

For a performance that has all of those details in the score, you must have the Aimard recording. The tempi are still appropriate and impressively fast at times, if not precipitous. Furthermore, it is complete in that this piano sonata has optional parts for both flute (a longer and important solo at the end of the muted final "Thoreau" movement, played on both recordings, by Jaime Martin for Hamelin and by Emmanuel Pahud for Aimard) and viola (a tiny couple of measures in the first movement), and the latter is heard only on the Aimard disc, played by Tabea Zimmermann.

Although listed as "optional," in fact, the flute part is essential to the Concord sonata. The last movement, according to Ives's notes, "is supposed to be played in a lower dynamic ratio than usual; -- i.e., the "f" here is about the "mf" of the preceding movements." For the flute solo, Ives writes, "A flute may play throughout this page." He does give instructions for what the piano should do if there is no flute, but he adds that "Thoreau much prefers to hear the flute over Walden." The viola part -- marked "ad lib" and in off-kilter triplets is not essential, but there is no way for Hamelin to incorporate it into the piano part, making its absence tangible as the first movement winds down to its conclusion, where we hear, in Ives's words, "the overtones of the soul of humanity rising away almost inaudibly to the Ultimate Destiny."

The texture of Ives's score is at times extremely dense, requiring three staves, for example. Aimard's voicings are almost always better, which is largely what Hamelin sacrifices with his tempi. The "fate motif" (sol-sol-sol-me) of Beethoven's fifth symphony is an important theme, hammered out throughout the score in various guises, corresponding in Emerson's work, Ives wrote, to "the Soul of humanity knocking at the door of the Divine Mysteries." One of my favorite moments in the score is the massive tone clusters in the middle of the second movement ("Hawthorne"), which Ives instructs are to be played with "a strip of board 14 3/4" in length," placed over the necessary part of the keyboard. If you think this would always produce the same sound, Hamelin's and Aimard's techniques with the wood are actually quite different from one another.

One part of the Aimard recording that I do not understand is the hymn section in the Hawthorne movement, what Ives describes as a hymn heard over a distant hill just after a storm. In the longest statement of the hymn theme, a series of tonal chords, Ives writes, "Here the Hymn for a moment is slightly held up by a Friendly Ghost in the Church Yard." For whatever reason, Aimard adds dissonant notes, not indicated in the score or in any revision to my knowledge, after he strikes the chords notated by Ives. (These seem to be modeled on the "overtone echoes over Orchard House" that Ives did notate in the third movement, "The Alcotts.") It's true that Elliott Carter remembered Ives in later years adding dissonances to his earlier works, a practice that Aimard appears to be extending. Also in the second movement are the big quotations of Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean and another march that also appears in the second movement of Three Places in New England.

The other reason that you should choose Aimard over Hamelin, if you have to choose, is what else is on each disc. Hamelin pairs the Concord sonata with a muscular performance of Barber's Piano Sonata, which is a great piece, too. However, the rest of the Aimard recording consists of a set of Ives songs, with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham. These songs are a wonderful complement to the Concord sonata, illuminating it with parallel glimpses of Ives's musical imagination.

Marc-André Hamelin is originally from Montréal, although he now lives in Philadelphia. He did make an earlier recording of the Concord sonata (with a sonata by Maurice Wright, released on CD in 1992), which I haven't heard yet. His 2004 CD went largely unnoticed, as far as I can tell. As for the Aimard/Graham CD, Jeremy Eichler listed it on the 2004 Best CDs list from the New York Times, although few other critics noticed it. (Here is Andrew McGregor's review for the BBC.) Of course, it then won the Grammy Award, but it was really the songs that won, for Best Classical Vocal Performance. In his 2004 piece on Ives (Pandemonium: Charles Ives, The New Yorker, June 7, 2004), Alex Ross did include some remarks on Aimard's live performance of the Concord sonata at Zankel Hall that year.


jfl said...

The Aimard Concord was highly acclaimed and got enthusiastic write-ups in most magazines. (It was also a Gramophone CD of the Month choice and a finalist for a Gramophone Award.) Hamelin's was released just after that... which was its main problem, everyone already having recommended one jump on the Aimard... and few willing to tell people that they need both. The fastest version of the Concord prior to Hamelin was... Hamelin. The speeds border incredulity.

If only one is to be had of either of those two, though, I certainly agree with Charles: it is the Aimard.

David Toub said...

I'm sure these are both great recordings. I still wish someone would release the great John Kirkpatrick recording on CD...

jfl said...

It's on CD... available from England at either or