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Charles IVES (1874 - 1954)
Sonata No. 4, Children's Day at the Camp Meeting for violin and piano [11:21]
Sonata No. 2, Concord Mass, 1840-60 for piano with optional viola and flute [47:30]
Emerson [16.24]
Hawthorne [11.58]
The Alcotts [5.46]
Thoreau [12.42]
Joonas Ahonen (piano)
Pekka Kuusisto (violin/viola)
Sharon Bezaly (flute)
rec. 2016, Sellosall, Epson Finland
BIS BIS2249 SACD [58:54]

Finnish pianist, Joonas Ahonen, has received critical acclaim both as a performer of Ligeti’s music and as a Beethoven interpreter on historical pianos. He recently released a recording of Ligeti’s piano music, including the Piano Concerto, for BIS which was well received by critics. Violinist Pekka Kuusisto is also a keen advocate of 20th Century and contemporary music and he released a recording of Fagerlund’s Violin Concerto for BIS to critical acclaim.

Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata was written over the first two decades of the 20th Century. The work was initially published in 1919 and a revised version appeared in 1947. Ives said the work was “his impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Massachusetts of over a half century ago”. The four movements of the sonata are portraits of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau. There are short optional solos for viola and flute which are included in this recording although other recordings (Hamelin for example) dispense with these. The work was written without barlines, there are advanced harmonies and cluster chords, and in the second movement Ives requests that the pianist use a 37 cm piece of wood to depress the keys. It is one of the most technically demanding works in the repertoire and requires a big technique, enormous stamina and a keen intellect which is able to make musical sense of Ives’ sprawling score.

There is much to admire in this performance by Joonas Ahonen who clearly has an excellent feel for Ives’ very distinctive and idiosyncratic musical style. In ‘Emerson’, the abstruse material is well organised and Ahonen deploys a wide variety of tone colours. The central section is very good indeed, with Ahonen doing an excellent job in capturing the ebb and flow of Ives’ shifting textures. He injects a poetic, rhapsodic feel into the music and produces rich Romantic tone colours. Ahonen is on top of the enormous technical demands in Hawthorne and captures the playful, whimsical character of the music well. Occasionally, I would have liked a little less pedal and he could perhaps have brought a little more exuberance and wackiness to the circus band and rag-time sections.

‘The Alcotts’ is the most conventional and tonal of the sonata’s four movements although it does contain some bitonal music. Ahonen brings enormous sensitivity and a lovely singing line to this movement and Ives’ wonderful modulations are handled beautifully. The final movement, ‘Thoreau’, depicts a pastoral scene and is a meditation on the vastness and diversity of the natural world. I was less convinced by Ahonen’s performance here and felt that it was the weakest of the four movements. The music occasionally feels a little disjointed and Ahonen does not quite capture the contemplative feel and the depiction of something vast and transcendent.

The two recordings of the Concord Sonata which really stand out for me are by the Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin (who has recorded the work twice) and the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. There are some elements of Ahonen’s performance which compare well with these two artists in particular the central section of ‘Emerson’ and his beautiful playing of ‘The Alcotts’. However, there are other elements of Ahonen’s performance I was less convinced by and Hamelin and Aimard remain for me the supreme interpreters of this work albeit for different reasons. Hamelin brings supreme technical control to the work and a vast palette of tone colours while Aimard brings an extraordinary range of imaginative sonorities and razor-sharp articulation in his modernist interpretation.

Ives composed his fourth Violin Sonata around 1916 with the intention of writing a less technically intricate piece suitable for his 12 year old nephew to play. Each of the three movements introduces hymn tunes in a fragmented way before gradually revealing the tune in its entirety. The sonata was championed by Joseph Szegeti who recorded the work and performed it at Carnegie Hall with Andor Foldes.

This is a very fine performance from Ahonen and Kuusisto: there is good attention to detail and they capture Ives’ distinctive idiom well. They are attentive to Ives’ dynamic markings in the first movement and there is good interplay between the two of them as they gradually reveal ‘Tell me the old, old story’. There is some lovely pianistic embroidery around the long violin lines in the Largo second movement. Kuusisto’s final rendition of ‘Jesus loves me’ is touching and sincere. The third movement has an upbeat rhythmic dynamism and is a real hand clapping gospel call to ‘Gather at the river’. There are performances of this work by Hahn and Listisa and Curt Thompson and Rodney Waters. This performance by Ahonen and Kuusisto stands up well to these although I think Hahn and Listisa have the edge by virtue of their very clean, balanced and well-integrated sound.

Overall, this recording contains some first rate playing from both performers and is highly recommended.

Robert Beattie

Previous review: Richard Hanlon (Recording of the Month)



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