Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Piano Sonata No 2 ‘Concord, Mass. 1840-1860’ (1920 rev. 1947) (I Emerson [19:48]; II Hawthorne [13:00]; III The Alcotts [8:37]; IV Thoreau [14:35])
Tzimon Barto (piano)
Christiane Palmen (flute); Jaques Mayencourt (viola)
rec. 19-20 September 2015, Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen CAPRICCIO C5268 [56:00]
Where do you stand on Charles Ives? I have seen him move from maverick outsider, through crusty curmudgeon to end up as national treasure. This is despite his hyper-masculine disdain for most composers, his obsession with the popular music he heard in his childhood, his disengagement from contemporary musical life and his reluctance to bring works to a finish so that others could judge them. In the USA he is regarded as a great composer. Was he really one or was he rather a fascinating figure who made interesting experiments which sometimes came off and sometimes didn’t? I still haven’t made up my mind. No work of his puts the question more clearly than the Concord sonata. This is one of those twentieth century piano works – others include Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica and Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus - which may be monstrosities or may be masterpieces, with no intermediate choices available.
It certainly has one quality of a masterpiece: it offers a wide range of possibilities for interpretation. This has made it one of the most recorded of twentieth century piano sonatas. There are at least twenty-six versions currently available and there must have been a number more in the past. The four movements evoke four writers – or rather, in the third movement, a family – from the American transcendentalist movement. So it is fundamentally a programmatic work. It is also full of the kind of material we expect from Ives including snatches of American popular songs, marches and hymns which are pasted in collage-style. The first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony are treated as a kind of motto. The moods range from impressionistically wistful to modernist aggressive, sometimes in single notes and sometimes with a fistful of discords. Yet the overall structure is surprisingly traditional: four movements, with the first and most complex being the equivalent of a sonata allegro. The scherzo comes second, the slow movement third. The finale is unusual in being mostly slow and quiet rather than fast and loud.
A performer needs a coherent conception of the work to avoid the risk of all this heterogeneous material simply falling apart. Tzimo Barto’s approach I would characterize as impressionist. He has a lovely tone and touch, and so is most successful in the third and fourth movements, particularly the third, which begins with an evocation of domestic music-making at the Alcotts’ house with the Beethoven five theme being the basis of what feels like an improvisation. The fourth movement is almost as good, but Barto rather loses the shape of it so that it seems to go on and on. He is less successful in the first two movements, where the complex textures of Emerson are not clearly articulated and he rather misses the demonic drive needed for much of Hawthorne. The optional two bars for viola are included in Emerson and the rather longer flute passage in Thoreau.
However, competition is fierce in this work and I can point to two other versions which are more consistently successful, though in rather different terms. Pierre-Laurent Aimard (review) has a rather fiercer conception of Concord as a modernist work and his formidable skills in clarifying complex textures are brilliantly deployed in Emerson, as is his rhythmic drive in Hawthorne. Nor does he lack delicacy in the two gentler movements. He also has Tabea Zimmermann to play the short viola passage and Emmanuel Pahud to play the flute solo – this is almost insolently luxurious casting. Marc-André Hamelin (review) plays it more as a romantic work, an equally valid view, and his astonishing technique makes light of the difficulties. He has the flute solo but not the viola passage. In the hands of these two players, and no doubt there are other commendable versions, the Concord sonata does indeed seem a masterpiece. I am less sure with Barto. When I add that he offers no coupling, whereas Aimard has a collection of Ives songs with Susan Graham, and Hamelin Samuel Barber’s piano sonata, I am afraid that Barto’s version is simply outclassed.