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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Violin Sonatas: No. 1 (c.1914) [22’14]; No. 2 (c.1914) [14’15]; No. 3 (c.1914) [30’06]; No. 4, ‘Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting’ (c.1916) [9’42].
Curt Thompson (violin); Rodney Waters (piano).
Rec. Duncan Recital Hall, Rice University Shepherd School of Music, Houston, Texas, January 8th-10th (Nos. 1/4), May 26th-27th (No. 2); December 16th-18th (No. 3) 1998. DDD

Charles Ives’ remarkable set of violin sonatas deserve the best, and Thompson and Waters certainly strive to make the best possible case for them in very attractive sound. Elsewhere on this site I reviewed the super-budget rival to this disc, that on Arte Nova (with Nobu Wakabayashi, 74321754952, spread over two discs but including the Pre-First Sonata and Largo. A useful survey of recordings appears at . These Naxos recordings were made as long ago as 1998.

To say the violinist has done his homework is a bit of an understatement. His Ph.D. dissertation was on these very works, so it is safe to assume it lived with them for a while. And it shows. His accompanist Rodney Waters is a pupil of Richard Goode, and he plays with great sensitivity. This is real chamber music, with both artists intertwining and really, really listening to one another.

The First Sonata includes typically Ivesian fingerprints. Hymn tunes and popular melodies vie with scrunchy harmonies in a kaleidoscopic manner (try the hints of hoe-down at around 3’35 in the first movement, and contrast that to the wistful opening of the second movement). The finale is, at just a tad under nine minutes, perhaps overly discursive, yet it ends with a typical, and delicious, Ives question mark. There is joy here, too, although it never appears totally unfettered. It is an interesting listening exercise, by the way, to attempt to track the emergence of the popular tunes Ives quotes, from embryo to full (but still Ivesian) statement.

Sonata No. 2 is the only one of the four to have movement titles: Autumn; In the Barn; The Revival. ‘Autumn actually uses as source material a hymn tune of that name, Both players are rhythmically on-the-ball, and both exude the requisite sense of abandon. Nice to hear the violin line so accurate ‘up top’.

The echt-Hoedownish (or should that be ‘Hoedownisch’?!) second movement (‘In the Barn’, appropriately enough) reveals both executants getting into the spirit of things, contrasting well with the tender pianissimi of the finale.

The longest Sonata is the Third (clocking in at half an hour). Ives referred to the first movement as ‘a kind of magnified hymn of four different stanzas’. There is tender sweetness in Ives’ manipulation of hymnic material, something Thompson and Waters react well to. Overall this is a very ruminative movement, the first three stanzas getting progressively faster (Adagio-Andante-Allegretto) before a return to the original Adagio at around 11’30. This is Ivesian peace at its best, and represents the composer at his very best.

The tentative (compositionally, that is) piano of the second movement builds towards a more dancing spirit which nevertheless remains fragmented at heart. The finale throws great technical challenges at the performers, challenges fully met here (the demanding descending violin scales around 3’30 are much more than just scales, for example, they carry real meaning).

The Fourth Sonata is less than ten minutes long. Its subtitle, (Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting’) tells much as to its irrepressible inner life. Popular tunes are, of course, there, now full of joie-de-vivre in the first movement; the second movement presents the meditative’ Jesus loves me’ as aural balm. The finale is a mere 1’45 long. Tunes seem bursting to get out from being entwined in the musical fabric, and it is this that creates the friction that feed the movement. The ending is great – it just stops mid-flow. Typical.

Highly recommended listening, then. The unswerving advocacy of these two youthful performers will, I am sure, win many converts.

Colin Clarke

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