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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Piano Sonata No. 2 ‘Concord Sonata’ (1912) [48:54]
Samuel BARBER (1685-1750)
Piano Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 26 (1950) [20:27]
Nicholas Zumbro (piano)
rec. 1992, London
KRITONOS 8 85767 06857 5 [67:21] 

In his Essays Before a Sonata, Charles Ives explained how he believed that music was ‘ philosophy carried on by other means’, referring to the discursive works of Emerson, Thoreau, and Carlyle. In this context the composer he most often mentions is Beethoven, and it is no surprise in his Sonata No. 2 that the references to Beethoven are palpable, to the Fifth Symphony in particular. Nicholas Zumbro’s powerful and committed performance brings out these things to the full. However, the title Concord refers to the town in Massachusetts associated with these writers, rather than to anything more profound. This substantial composition is a series of meditations on the transcendentalist writers Emerson, Hawthorne, ‘The Alcotts,’ and Thoreau. 

Nicholas Zumbro has long been associated with the work. He gave the premieres of the Sonata in several European cities, including Amsterdam, Berlin, Salzburg, Milan and Athens. Each movement of this Sonata bears its own dedication: Emerson, then Hawthorne, The Alcotts and Thoreau. Accordingly the music tends to sprawl across its span of forty or fifty minutes. If that seems a big differential it’s a true reflection, since Zumbro takes 48 minutes for his performance, whereas Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion CDA67469) takes just 42 minutes. The latter’s performance is particularly tight and it benefits from more atmospheric sound than Zumbro’s, which suffers from some congestion at climaxes. 

If the essential issue in the Sonata is the conflict between lofty ideals and man’s struggle to realise them, the sense of struggle is palpable in the music too. It is uncompromising stuff, and quite extraordinary for 1912 when it was written. Perhaps the model was Beethoven’s Op. 106, the epic Hammerklavier Sonata. As Ives’s ideas carried him along, he even added the option of additional parts for viola and flute in the final stages. Zumbro, in common with other pianists who have recorded the work, declines these options.

The coupling is another important American sonata, that of Samuel Barber. The two composers had very different outlooks and Barber claimed he didn’t care at all for Ives’s music. The Sonata is one of Barber's most important compositions. The circumstances of its commissioning and first performance were auspicious, placing the composer at the very centre of American musical life. The premiere took place in New York City in January 1950 and was given by Vladimir Horowitz, while the commission came from the League of Composers, with funds provided by Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin, no less.
The four movements range across the whole spectrum of Barber's idiom, and Zumbro articulates them very effectively, from the harmonic and rhythmic robustness which accents the piano's essentially percussive nature, to a delicate and subtly impelled lyricism. The performance emphasises how the first movement in particular projects a forthright modernist stance; the second has darting quicksilver accents with a very different personality.
It is typical of Barber that the slow movement should be the heart of the work. The Adagio mesto description, meaning 'very slow and sad', unequivocally describes the nature of the musical expression, which achieves a remarkable poignancy and sincerity. After this the finale rebuilds with a great show of strength and purpose, since it is a large-scale fugue whose priority is to construct a grand and majestic climax to the whole work. This gives Zumbro every opportunity to display his considerable technique.
If the pianism on display has to be of a high order, sadly the same cannot be said of the presentation and documentation. Printed white against a black background, the accompanying notes have plenty of useful information about Ives, but none whatsoever about Barber. Moreover this bizarre imbalance is underlined by a listing of the latter’s movements using a large font size and huge spacings that occupy a complete page. Zumbro’s readings deserve better. All in all, the advice has to be: opt for Hamelin on Hyperion, with exactly the same coupling.
Terry Barfoot