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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


My last encounter with the Concord Sonata was Aimard’s on Warner where it was coupled with some of Ives’ songs. The Frenchman certainly took a more visceral and intensely powerful approach to it than does the American pianist Steven Mayer, whose more measured (50 minute) traversal also brings its own rewards. In that respect Mayer may be seen as embodying another approach to the Ivesian aesthetic, since Marc-André Hamelin (New World) takes a good eight minutes off Mayer’s timing, clocking in at 42 minutes. Should one judge by the stopwatch that is a reasonable measure of priorities. But of course the stopwatch tells only part of the story.

In Mayer’s hands the craggy romanticism is allowed to unfold at its own unhurried pace, the colours are brought out with restrained confidence, and the Beethoven 5 allusions are, at this speed, rather more explicit than is usually the case. He certainly catches the Scherzo of Hawthorne and gives the hymn tune Martyn with simplicity and well-balanced chords (it’s to reappear later) – as well as the more tumultuous march tunes. He makes the allusions to the hymnal and to Beethoven most palpable in The Alcotts and finds great poetry and intimacy in Thoreau. His playing throughout is finely attuned to the reflective and to the ideas of transcendence. He plays the finale solo by the way; others, such as Hamelin, include the flute whilst Aimard includes both flute and viola parts.

Elsewhere we get refinements of movements from the sonata – in Four Transcriptions from ‘Emerson’, No.1 in which he compresses material from the first movement; the thought processes are actually even more compelling than the music.
The Celestial Railroad, also utilises material from Concord and does so with phantasmagoric brilliance, fusing railway rhythms with hymn tunes and scuppering the piety with swathes of scampering writing. Much of this also applies to the tough, fractious atonalities of the Varied Air and Variations.

The recording catches the tumult with clarity – and the playing carries its own whiff of determination, and romance. To those for whom the hyper virtuosic, fastball, linear curve of Hamelin and Aimard seems too daemonic Mayer offers a more considered alternative. The Ivesian tent is a capacious one; there’s room for Bedouin of all shapes and sizes.

Jonathan Woolf

see also reviews by Tony Haywood and Patrick Waller


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