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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Sonata No.2 for Piano, ‘Concord, Mass.: 1840-60’ (1904-15)
Varied Air and Variations
The Celestial Railroad

Four Transcriptions from ‘Emerson’, No.1
Steven Mayer (piano)
Recorded at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto, Canada, 30-31 January 2002

This excellent budget disc enters a surprisingly crowded field. There are many fine recordings of Ives’s astounding Concord Sonata, chief among them being Marc-André Hamelin (New World), Gilbert Kalish (Nonesuch) and a super-budget rival from Alexei Lubimov on Warner Apex. There is also a new release form the phenomenal Pierre-Laurent Aimard on Warner which, like the others, has a very different coupling to this Naxos (in Aimard’s case, a group of Ives’s fine songs). If coupling is important, then you may want to do some serious comparative listening, but if the massive sonata is your main concern (as it surely will be), then you should give Steven Mayer’s recording a try.

From the outset, there is no doubting his all-important technical capabilities. As is well documented, all the movements are affectionate musical portraits of the New England transcendentalist writers that Ives admired. The longest and most complex is the first movement, Emerson. The sheer density of this section, much of it on three staves and with no bar lines, makes it a nightmare for the pianist, not just getting round the plethora of notes but making musical and structural sense of it. It is to Mayer’s credit that his finely sculpted playing does just that, and his fairly steady tempo helps him give balance between the contrasting material within the movement. This may not be the free-wheeling display of bravura that marks out Hamelin’s playing, but it is thrillingly vital and concentrated in its own right.

In the scherzo-like second movement (Hawthorne) Mayer wisely ignores Ives’s indication that the music be played as ‘fast as possible’, opting for a sensible pace that allows the music to breathe whilst still hinting at the fantastical nature of the inspiration. This is the movement that includes the famous note clusters, usually played with strips of wood. I admire Mayer’s lack of sensationalism here, and what emerges is uncannily Debussy-like (or even Messiaen-like) in its impressionistic wash of sound.

The glorious slow movement, a nostalgic yet unsentimental portrait of the Alcott family, shows Mayer finely tuned to the innocence and purity of Ives’s vision. As the composer himself commented in the essay that prefaces this music ‘…there sits the old spinet-piano that Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott children, on which Beth played the old Scotch airs, and played at the Fifth Symphony’. He means Beethoven’s Fifth, of course which, along with the Hammerklavier, permeates this movement and the entire sonata. This movement also uses the hymn tune Martyn, and the whole is immensely affecting, particularly the build towards the grand climax. This has to be one of the composer’s most noble utterances, and I was also aware in this performance of how uncannily it sounded like one of those long solo improvisations from jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.

The last movement is a deceptively calm portrait of Thoreau which, after a central climax, unwinds in a long closing section of great eloquence. The final tune, a relative to the sonata’s opening theme, was characterised by the composer as ‘a human-faith melody, transcendent and sentimental enough for the enthusiast and the cynic’. I doubt there will be many cynics after listening to Steven Mayer’s beautifully judged playing, the sort of performance that has you marvelling afresh at the sheer scale and originality of Ives’s vision. It may be a downside to some that the optional flute and viola parts are left out, but I doubt you’ll really miss them.

The fillers are interesting and worthwhile. The Emerson Transcriptions are basically a reworking of material from the sonata’s first movement into a 5-minute improvisation.

The Celestial Railroad also uses music from the sonata, in this case the Hawthorne movement, and goes a stage further in trying to convey the metaphysical nature of the inspiration. The jokily-titled Varied Air and Variation give an accurate and compact idea of Ives’s sense of humour, albeit with a genuine concern for what the concert pianist has to endure. The dissonant, hyper-chromatic writing is very much ‘in your face’ stuff, brilliantly brought off by Mayer, who one can imagine enjoying playing this as an encore at his own concerts.

A very successful disc overall. The sound is good rather than great, with a pleasing acoustic but the odd rasp on the piano (around D octave above middle C) that is caught by the microphone. Excellent notes are by the wonderfully named H. Wiley Hitchcock.

Worth considering.

Tony Haywood

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