Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Con slugarocko - Complete Violin Sonatas
Violin Sonata No. 1 (1903, 1914-17) [22.57]
Violin Sonata No. 2 (1914-17) [14.52]
Violin Sonata No. 3 (1901-4, 1914) [29.17]
Violin Sonata No. 4 (1902-16) [10.46]
Annabelle Berthomé-Reynolds (violin)
Dirk Herten (piano)
rec. White Atrium, Avenue de la Toison d’Or, Brussels, Belgium, 27 January-4 February 2016
WH’TE 2016 [79.24]

The first things which might surprise you on opening up this CD is that there are no booklet notes, just a picture of an old typewriter with an Ives quote alongside: “And I did what I wanted to, quite sure that the thing would never be played, and perhaps never could be played”. You will have gathered therefore that any information I can offer I have gleaned myself from various sources and I must say immediately that the above dates for the works are, to a certain extent, guess-work even by Ives scholars.

First, there are four sonatas. The sequence began as early as 1902/3 when the initial ideas for the First Sonata were developed. It is in three movements. The first begins Andante and moves into an Allegro Vivace. The middle movement is marked Largo cantabile but the last word does not apply consistently as the movement develops aggressively at times. The finale is an Allegro. The usual Ivesian fingerprints are here. Its composition came about when he was finding himself at the time of the Third Symphony The Camp Meeting. You hear hymns, popular tunes and ragtime, poly-rhythms and cross-rhythms with many of the melodies recognisable from other works like Orchestral Set II and the Symphonies 3 and 4. One must think of Ives, to quote Stuart Feder in the "Life of Charles Ives" (Cambridge University Press, 1999) as nostalgic for “the Danbury of his childhood (indeed childhood itself) and was and forever remained, a sojourn into American Arcady”, the America of his father — who was a very considerable influence on him — and grandfather.

The form in an Ives movement is unique. Taking the middle movement of this First Sonata, he begins simply with a lovely child-like melody and gradually adds complexities and abstractions. Vivid memories start to pile in from all sides resulting eventually in a passionate crescendo and an outburst reaching a wild climax. This suddenly fades as Ives releases the reverie and becomes aware of his present world.

This analysis could equally apply to the third movement of the Second Violin Sonata. To an even greater degree it is filled with the Ivesian fingerprints mentioned above. The difference is that it is openly programmatic. Movement I is entitled Autumn and one might think here of harvest-time. Ives had written Three Harvest Home Chorales several years before; the gathering of the crops was a significant village/town event. The second is In the Barn; once the crops are in the village can celebrate with a dance of wild abandon. The third, which is nostalgic and reflective in the main, is The Revival with its quasi-religious mood.

The first movement of the Third Sonata is as long as the whole of the Second Sonata. At this time Ives was at his most prolific. In the early 1920s he started to gather his music together with a view to some of the works being published and he may well have enlarged or at least revised some of them. It appears in fact that the movements of this Sonata may have been cobbled together from separate pieces during the First World War. This Third Sonata is very approachable with its poised and melodic first movement, its jazzy middle Allegro and its Cantabile Adagio opening to the third.

You will have noticed that, as yet, I have not mentioned the performances or the recording. The weakness of each is manifested in this aimlessly played first movement. There is little sense of musical direction and the performers are not helped by an awkward recording, the sound of which can often over-emphasise the piano especially in the heavy chordal passages. In fairness I didn’t entirely realise this until a friend lent me the version recorded by Curt Thompson and Rodney Waters on Naxos 8.559119, which sounded so much better prepared and understood. Sadly Berthomé-Reynolds’ tone quality is not consistent and this compounds the problem. It’s also a pity that so little space has been left between the sonatas.

The Fourth Sonata begins after only a few seconds. Its subtitle Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting gave Ives the chance to recall his 1870s childhood with much “inventive play at the summer camps” (Feder). It's also based on hymns, which were sung by children at their services. Ives said that he wanted to write a sonata which his “twelve year handicapped nephew could play”. That may be so in the first movement (Allegro) but the second one "got away". Indeed Ives’ demands on the violinist are often so extraordinarily impossible in many places in these sonatas, that it's as if he is asking the player also to help in the creation of the work. The length of the whole Fourth Sonata, a generally very approachable work, is less than the Third Sonata’s first movement.

This is not top-drawer Ives nor are these performances necessarily on top of the music. I like the way Annabelle Berthomé-Reynolds and Dirk Herten tackle the slower more sensitive sections but the more abrasive and fierce passages, of which there are many, sound rather congested and unpleasing. As I indicated above this, no doubt, is also, down to the recording.

Gary Higginson