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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Piano Sonata No. 2, "Concord, Mass., 1840-1860" Ü [42.54]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)

Piano Sonata, Op. 26 [19.15]
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Jamie Martin, flute Ü
Recorded Henry Wood Hall, London on April 5-6, 2004
HYPERION CDA67469 [62:09]


Selected Recordings for Comparison:
Ives: "Concord" Sonata

Marc-André Hamelin (New World NW 378-2)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Warner Classics 2564 60297-2)
John Kirkpatrick (Columbia Stereo LP MS 7192, nla)
Barber: Piano Sonata

Vladimir Horowitz (RCA Gold Seal 60377-2-RG)
To view more information about Ivesí "Concord" Sonata, go to: http://www.musicweb-international.com/Ives/WK_Piano_Sonata_2.htm

Ives advocate and scholar John Kirkpatrick recorded the "Concord" sonata twice. After he premiered the work, he made the first recording in 1948 and later re-recorded it in stereo in 1968. As he was learning the piece, he noted that Ives was remarkably elusive about providing instructions for playing the sonata. When Kirkpatrick would ask Ives about a particular passage, the composer would sit down at the piano bench and begin playing. Sometimes heíd play the passage in question; usually he wouldnít. In either case, Ives would find a way to avoid talking about it. Ives wanted performers to bring their own predilections and assumptions to each performance. Kirkpatrick faced another difficulty learning the "Concord": Ives continually revised it. In fact, Ives saw the "Concord" as a never-ending work in progress. In his Memos (Norton), he made the following remarks about the sonata: "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 ..." This unfinished, improvisatory quality is what makes this work defy any single interpretation, by any pianist ó even Ives himself. An "ultimate" version is clearly the last thing that he had in mind.

With this new recording Marc-André Hamelinís joins Kirkpatrick as the only other pianist to have recorded the "Concord" twice. Hamelin made his first recording of the work for New World Records in 1988. Itís a staggering, Olympian performance. In his artistic manifesto Essays Before a Sonata, Ives imagines Emerson as someone who is so "intensely on the lookout for the trail of his star that he has no time to stop and retrace his footprints." On the New World recording, Hamelin not only looks up at the sky, he launches into the stratosphere. Itís a performance that makes one think of space travel: planets, meteors, stars. All go coursing by in a flash.

So, how does this new version on Hyperion compare? The overall tone of this recording is much more inward and reflective, if no less intense. Whereas Hamelinís first recording emphasized the trailblazing aspects of the work ó especially in the "Emerson" and "Hawthorne" movements, this recording seems more weighted toward the poetry of "The Alcotts" and "Thoreau." But this isnít glib lyricism. Rather, the effect is one of a pianist who is plumbing the depths of the work. Thereís an enormous stillness here, a profound, dark-hued quiet. Itís a tribute to Hamelinís long involvement with this music that he can make two recordings that offer such distinct interpretations and still have both of them be so entirely convincing.

This recording of the "Concord" joins a crowded field. In fact, there have been three new recordings of the "Concord" issued in this year alone, including a widely-praised version by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Aimardís reading is compelling. His approach might be characterized as "modern", contrasted with Hamelinís more "romantic" approach, although these broad generalizations tend to fail music as idiosyncratic as Ivesí. In any case, I prefer Hamelin. In both of his recordings, Hamelin seems more attuned to Ivesí sound-world than any other pianist Iíve heard.

Hamelin also offers a bravura performance of the Barber Sonata. Hamelinís amazing technique is on full display in this performance, although he sacrifices nothing in terms of color and atmosphere. Perhaps the most well-known recording of the Barber Sonata is the one by Horowitz. Horowitz premiered the work, and he made the first recording in 1952. This recording yields nothing to that legendary version.

Recommended without reservation.

Scott Mortensen

 

The Charles Ives Website


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