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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
A Concord Symphony (orch. Henry Brant) (1920/1995) [51:40]
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 15 September 2000. DDD
INNOVA 414 [51:40]

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Ives’ Concord Sonata (Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-60) is the composer’s best-known work, and contains a concentrated version of many of Ives’ musical ideas. It is the piece into which he poured much of his thought, even going as far as writing a long essay, “Essay Before a Sonata” to amplify the work.

Composer Henry Brant, who discovered Ives’ work at age 15, set out late in life to create an orchestral transcription of the sonata, turning this craggy piano work into an orchestral exploration containing its own share of asperities. 

One cannot hope to compare the actual piano work to this transcription; the difference between the solo piano - even in Ives’ masterful use of the broad palette of colors available on the keyboard - and a full orchestra is vast. What Brant does is translate this work into another form. Eschewing much of the rhythmic material inherent in the piano, Brant opts for a transcription that brings in all the colors of the orchestra to interpret the sonata. For example, in the Emerson movement, the first part of the work and the most tempestuous, strong brass instruments are used in place of the harsh, fortissimo chords. Yet, later, woodwinds are at the heart of the more ethereal ending, where subtle touches at the keyboard give melodic fragments. 

In the Hawthorne movement, Brant chooses an almost Mahlerian selection of light instruments then heavy brasses to translate the rapid arpeggios and near tone-clusters of the opening, before bringing in the string section. The Thoreau movement opens with a flute - which is appropriate, because of the use of the flute in some versions of the actual sonata, representing Thoreau’s playing a flute by Walden Pond - then using colorful oboe runs to lay out the melodies. Mellow strings stand behind as structural elements, and this, the most transcendent of the four movements of the sonata, starts with a smaller, less raucous treatment from the orchestra, before using a crescendo of brass and timpani. The main melodic phrase of this movement arises in many forms, though mainly played by the string section. The orchestration of this part may represent the most delicately subtle sections of the symphony. 

All in all, the contrasts between the different choices of instrumentation and the piano are similar to the difference between black-and-white and color; or, more correctly, black-and-white and grayscale. Not to suggest that the sonata played on the piano is in black and white; far from it. It is one of modern music’s most varied and colorful works for keyboard. But listening to one then the other shows that these are more accurately two completely different works rather one being simply a transcription of the other. The highlights are different on the piano. In the orchestration, a choice of instruments makes certain phrases stand out. 

For all that one may wonder at the choices of orchestration, this Concord Symphony simply works. It translates Ives’ vision into a different form, and does so extremely effectively. It gives the listener a new perspective on the brilliant work that is the Concord Sonata. This recording is certainly an essential addition to any Ives collection.

Kirk McElhearn

 


 


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