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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Varied Air: Charles Ives, the Piano Music

Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-1860* (1904-15, revised circa 1919; revised 1920-40s for 2nd edition)
Three Page Sonata (1905)
Varied Air and Variations, Study # 2 for Ears or Aural and Mental Exercise!!! (c. 1923)
Study No. 9, The Anti-Abolitionist Riots in the 1830s and 1840s (c. 1908-09)
Waltz-Rondo (c. 1911)
Piano Sonata No. 1 (c. 1901-1909)
Study No. 20: March, Study in even durations—unevenly divided (c. 1908)
Study No. 21, Some South-Paw Pitching! (c. 1909 or 1914)
Study No. 22 (c. 1909)
Study No. 23, Baseball Take-Off (c. 1909)
Set of Five Take-Offs (1906-07)
Philip Mead, piano
Helen Brammen, flute*
Elena Artemonova, viola*
Recorded in the Vestry Hall, Ealing, London, 29 June 1999, 30 January 2000, and 9 April 2000
METIER MSV CD92037 (a+b)
[2 CDs: 64.32+68.44]


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In October 1918, Charles Ives suffered a heart attack brought on by exhaustion and undiagnosed diabetes. This marked a turning point in his career. As Ives’ biographer Jan Swafford points out, for the remainder of his life, the primary focus of Ives’ musical efforts would be promoting his works, rather than composing. The very first work that he chose to show to the world—after fifteen years of nearly absolute artistic isolation—was his Second Piano Sonata, subtitled Concord, Mass., 1840-1860. Ives had a special regard for the work. He took great measures to explain his aims in the Essays Before a Sonata, a programmatic overview of the sonata that Ives included when he published the work (at his own considerable expense) in 1921. In short, the sonata is a series of meditations on four great Transcendentalist writers: Emerson, Hawthorne, "The Alcotts," and Thoreau.

In Emerson, Ives finds "an invader of the unknown—America’s deepest explorer of the spiritual immensities…" (Essays 11). Ives also imagines Emerson as "a mountain guide so intensely on the lookout for the trail of his star that he has no time to stop and retrace his footprints…" (Essays 12). (Of course, Ives is not only describing Emerson here; he’s describing his own music.) Turning to the second movement, Ives tries to "suggest some of [Hawthorne’s] wilder, fantastical adventures into the half-childlike, half-fairylike phantasmal realms," rather than focusing on Hawthorne’s foremost themes: sin and the conscience (Essays 42). The third movement is Ives’ homage to domestic life, as represented by Bronson Alcott and his family. The fourth movement is dedicated to Thoreau, who Ives describes as "a great musician, not because he played the flute, but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear ‘the Symphony’" (Essays 51). One other comment reveals Ives’ deep attachment to the Concord Sonata. Many years after publishing the work, Ives remarked that the sonata was his one work that never seemed finished; it was a perpetual work in motion, a continual improvisation: "I don’t know as I shall ever write [my improvisations] out, as it may take away the daily pleasure of playing this music and seeing it grow and feeling that it is not finished…I may always have the pleasure of not finishing it…" (Memos 80).

Appropriately enough, Philip Mead begins his wonderful new collection of piano works by Ives with the Concord Sonata. Comparing Mead’s reading to another fine recording of this work, by Marc-André Hamelin on New World (NW 378-2), I find Mead’s reading of the Emerson movement to be a shade less deliberate than Hamelin’s. While Mead’s version may lack some of Hamelin’s Olympian, lightning bolt-wielding power, he is perhaps more poetic and lyrical. But, as fine as the first movement may be, Mead is even stronger in the second movement. This reading captures the crashing, cacophonous rowdiness of the Hawthorne movement better than any other that I’ve heard. Mead’s pianism evokes the feeling of an amusement park ride that’s both hypnotically scary and exciting; he makes Ives’ description of the piece as "phantasmal" seem entirely appropriate. After the wild ride of the Hawthorne movement, the third seems appropriately traditional without ever being cloying or sentimental. The fourth movement is also very fine. As in the first movement, Mead is especially adept at evoking the finer, poetic elements in this surging, kaleidoscopic music. And this recording, unlike Hamelin on New World, includes the "optional" flute in the Thoreau movement. Stunning.

My only complaint about this recording of the Concord Sonata is the recording itself. The music is marred by fairly muddy, distant recorded sound. For example, the New World recording seems vastly more open and detailed than the Metier recording. A pity. Nonetheless, unless top-shelf sound is your highest priority, I heartily recommend Mead’s reading of the Concord Sonata. And, given Ives’ remarks about the never-ending, improvisational nature of this music, you should probably hear more than one version of this work anyway. (I really wouldn’t want to be without Hamelin as well!)

As for the other works on these discs, suffice it to say that Mead’s readings of these works are also outstanding. While I wouldn’t want to give up Joanna MacGregor’s recording of the First Sonata (Collins 11072, no longer available), Mead’s is equally compelling—and readily available. Even more compelling are Mead’s readings of the shorter works. To my ears, these are the finest recordings of these works available, easily surpassing Alan Mandel (on Vox CD3X 3034) and Donald Berman (on CRI CD 811). Unfortunately, I must mention once again that the recording itself is less-than-stellar (though they are better than the Vox recordings).

So, if you’ve wanted to investigate Ives’ piano compositions, Mead offers outstanding interpretations of all the major works, conveniently collected in a two-disc set. The only "fly in the ointment" is the sound quality. Aside from this caveat, this set is recommended without reservation.

Scott Mortensen

References:

Essays Before a Sonata, The Majority, and Other Writings. Edited by Howard Boatwright (Norton, 1999).

Charles E. Ives: Memos. Edited by John Kirkpatrick (Norton, 1991).


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