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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-4 (1902-1916): First Sonata for Violin and Piano [22:44], Second Sonata for Violin and Piano [14:15], Third Sonata for Violin and Piano [30:06], Fourth Sonata for Violin and Piano, "Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting" [9:42].
Curt Thompson (violin), Rodney Waters (piano).
Recorded 8-10 January 1998 (First and Fourth Sonatas), 26-27 May (Second Sonata), 16-18 December (Third Sonata) at Duncan Recital Hall, Shepherd School of Music, Rice University, Houston, Texas. DDD
NAXOS 8.559119 [76:47]

This excellent project would be valuable even if it weren’t of such high quality, since these unique sonatas aren’t exactly an over-recorded commodity in the catalogue. I have not yet heard the highly regarded Bridge recording with Gregory Fulkerson and Robert Shannon.

Composed between 1902 and 1916, these four gems range from just over nine minutes to over thirty for the longest. And as H. Wiley Hitchcock comments in his excellent liner notes, they share much in common. Each has three movements, each is "tinged with the music of American Protestant hymnody and ends with a finale based on a hymn-tune," each uses the prototypical "cumulative form"(*) that Ives developed, and each is relatively – emphasis on the word "relatively" – easy to play. They also share a love of beloved American songs from the later part of the 19th century – tunes that drift in and out with dreamlike purity, zigzagging with bold changes in metre and the furiously spiky harmonies that Ives favored.

[* A phrase coined by Ives scholar J. Peter Burkholder, who observed that many of Ives’ pieces begin with bits and pieces of a musical phrase – tiny fragments that gradually coalesce until the "entire" melody is revealed at the end of the piece.]

The First Sonata was designed to depict outdoor gatherings, climaxing with the third movement depicting a farmers’ camp meeting, where hymns incite them to "work, for the night is coming." The Second Sonata has no notes, possibly as Hitchcock suggests because its subtitles are descriptive enough: "Autumn," "In the Barn" and "The Revival." The Third was "An attempt to suggest the feeling and fervor ... with which the hymns and revival tunes were sung at the camp meetings held extensively in New England in the 1870s and 1880s." And the Fourth evokes children running loose, thrilled to be outdoors on a gorgeous summer day.

Curt Thompson plays with absolute assurance, and a combination of intimacy and gutsy immediacy. Consider the short "Allegro" movement of the Third Sonata, which becomes completely electric in Thompson’s hands. But equally moving is its final "Adagio", which begins with a sort of "free fantasia". All of these works have moments of hushed quiet and solitude, but usually not for long, when they careen into vigorous explosions where rhythms and tonal centers collide. Hitchcock cites a touchingly humorous complaint from Franz Micke, a German violinist whom Ives invited to try the First and Second sonatas: "When you get awfully indigestible food in your stomach that distresses you, you can get rid of it, but I cannot get those horrible sounds out of my ears." Thankfully Ives trusted his instincts to let those of us in the present day come to our own conclusions.

Rodney Waters gives Mr. Thompson alert support, plunging into the piano parts with gusto but not at the expense of sensitivity where needed. His playing in the touching second movement of the Fourth Sonata elevates one of the simplest hymns, Jesus Loves Me, to celestial status. Part of the beauty of Ives is the almost constant pull and tug between moments that are ineffably beautiful, and those that might seem hackneyed or trite to some listeners. Further, this is not music that rewards timid, laid-back performers, and both Waters and Thompson hurl themselves into Ives’ compelling sound-world and present his often complex, overlapping ideas with matter-of-fact expertise.

The recording, completed at Rice University in Houston, Texas, is intimate and close-up, suiting the material. Another of this project’s many virtues is that it showcases two excellent, under-the-radar artists, whose terrific work might otherwise go unnoticed. Highly, highly recommended.

Bruce Hodges


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