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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Songs: The Things Our Fathers Loved; The Housatonic at Stockbridge; From the Swimmers; Memories (A – Very Pleasant, B –Rather Sad); Ann Street; Serenity; 1,2,3; Songs my mother taught me; The Circus Band; The Cage; The Indians; Like A Sick Eagle; “A sound of a distant horn”; September; Soliloquy (or a Study in 7ths and Other Things); A Farewell to Land; Thoreau Piano Sonata No.2 Concord, Mass, 1840-60 * Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano) Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) Tabea Zimmermann (viola) *
Emmanuel Pahud (flute) * Rec. Grosser Saal, Vienna, November 2003 (Songs) and January 2004 (Sonata) WARNER CLASSICS 2564 60297-2 [79.18]

A notably successful disc. It’s timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Ives’ death in May 1954 and couples the kaleidoscopic and teeming Concord Sonata with seventeen songs (out of 114), many set to the composer’s own words. Aimard and Graham are on first-rate form throughout in the songs and the French pianist bears the weight of the sonata’s unremitting demands with conspicuous success, aided by the warm acoustic of Vienna’s Grosser Saal.

Though he’s been playing the Sonata for many years there is no lessening of visceral impact. Taking a quartet of nineteenth century literary Americans – Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott and Thoreau – the sonata teems with transcendentalism and dissonance, a galvanizing and often cripplingly difficult world within a world. The sonata embeds conversational excesses, popular song, hymn tunes, Ragtime, a tough swing, heroic bell peals, tremendous rhythmic incision (especially in Hawthorne) and moments of inscape – vistas of overwhelming realisation and simplicity. These moods and reflections are presented in tumultuous conjunction and the pianist must realise the variousness of the Sonata with utter fidelity, a responsibility Aimard discharges with fluid intelligence and unforgettable virtuosity. To cap it all we have the advantage of violist Tabea Zimmermann in the optional sliver that ends Emerson and flautist Emmanuel Pahud in Thoreau.

Aimard joins Susan Graham in the songs: kaleidoscopic evocations, nostalgic, ironic, dramatic, theatrical and introspective. They bring out the languor and then the corresponding clangour of The Housatonic at Stockbridge in all its restless assertiveness. They are wonderfully alive to the Edwardiana and whistling (Graham) of Memories and to the bristling fun of “1,2,3”. Ives’s romanticism is best explored in a setting such as Songs my mother taught me and the buoyant, marching bandery and cocky revels to which he was so attuned in The Circus band. In Ann Street we even hear Aimard’s spoken contribution from the keyboard. Susan Graham is a particularly eloquent guide to this repertoire. As she showed in her Ned Rorem disc she has a beautifully modulated voice and subtle inflective devices to really put across these kind of songs. Here and there I found moments when I felt her just slightly too artful – but they are few – and she never stints their full vocabulary and largesse of feeling that they engender – and inspire.

Jonathan Woolf

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