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.