Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 4, Children's Day at the Camp Meeting (1911-1916) [11:21]
Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-1860 for piano, with optional viola and flute (1916-19) [47:30]
Joonas Ahonen (piano)
Pekka Kuusisto (violin; viola)
Sharon Bezaly (flute)
rec. 2016, Sellosali, Espoo, Finland
Reviewed as a 16-bit download
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2249 SACD [58:51]
Charles Ives was twentieth century art-music’s equivalent of the legendary Italian football manager Claudio Ranieri. A prodigious “tinker-man”, he was rarely completely satisfied with his mature work. He was almost compulsively prone to chiseling and refining it; then he would change his mind and rough it up again. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of his great Concord Piano Sonata. It is a work he revelled in extemporising upon and changing, indeed a work he justified in unprecedented literary terms in Essays before a Sonata, to the point that he admitted about its thorny first movement Emerson: “I feel that I don’t play or feel like playing this music even now in the same way each time. Some of the passages now played haven’t been written out…..and I don’t know as I ever shall write them out, as it may take away the daily pleasure of playing this music and seeing it grow and feeling that it is not finished (I may always have the pleasure of not finishing it).” (quoted in Jan Swafford’s superb 1996 biography Charles Ives—A Life with Music).
The dates of composition cited above (and in the notes of the present release) are approximate at best: there were revisions in 1917, 1920 and during the 1940s. All of that suggests, as other critics have asserted or implied, that the idea of a definitive Concord, in score, performance or recording is elusive, and will remain an idea.
So ultimately one’s favourite recording of this work will largely depend on what you look for in your Ives. If it is rough-hewn cragginess you are after (implicit in Ives’s own rather primitive 1943 recording of extracts) you will doubtless prefer the first John Kirkpatrick recording (available as a Soundmark download) or Philip Mead’s agile Métier traversal (MSVCD 92037). If you look at the work as a vehicle for modernist virtuosity, then perhaps you might go for Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Warner Classics 2564 60297-2—review here—a little too literal for my taste). Both of Marc-André Hamelin’s recordings are inevitably virtuosic (and each splendidly recorded, though the second on Hyperion (CDA67469—review here) possesses more of that label’s characteristic glow; he certainly captures the transcendental qualities of The Alcotts and Thoreau in ways that more appropriately address this particular reviewer’s sensibilities. There have been many other recordings (several of them discussed on this page, uploaded to the MWI site some time ago). The most recent effort was Tzimon Barto’s recording on Capriccio (C5268—review here). Despite some moments of stunning pianism on Barto’s part, I found this performance just too slow and the work’s structure tended to sag—especially in Emerson which comes in just shy of 20 minutes.
To my ears, Joonas Ahonen has possibly trumped all of these distinguished offerings with this terrific account. I have now played the disc four times and become increasingly convinced of both the stature of the Concord Sonata itself and the holistic validity of Ahonen’s approach to it. His virtuosity is palpable throughout the opening Emerson, but so is a rare intuition for its apparently wayward structure. Ahonen is utterly unafraid to go really big or almost inaudibly soft when the opportunities arise, but at no stage in this magisterial account are extremes of dynamic allowed to distort the clarity of the sonata’s complex inner parts. There is beauty and fantasy aplenty, but also tact and restraint here. The tiny viola line towards the end of the movement (played by Pekka Kuusisto) fades in and out spookily.
Ahonen’s lightness of touch truly dazzles in the skittering scherzo Hawthorne, revealing stylistic and sonic parallels in Ives’ writing with Ligeti that I had never before perceived—I reckon he would do a great set of the Hungarian master’s three books of Études (he has already recorded the Piano Concerto on BIS CD 2209—review here.). Ahonen conspicuously revels in the sound and wonder of this phantasmagorical sonic depiction of Hawthorne’s Celestial Railroad.
Given the technical ambiguities writ large across the rest of the score, by Ivesian standards The Alcotts is a model of clarity. The leitmotif of the fate melody from Beethoven’s Fifth which materialises throughout the work takes on a different hue altogether in this panel. Ahonen captures the simplicity and intimacy of the Alcott family parlour splendidly. He absolutely nails the softening of the Emerson material that finds itself in this strange, domesticated context. There is an affecting, even positive melancholy in this reading.
As for Thoreau, I wonder if this pianist, as a Finn, subconsciously imbues this autumnal music with the spirit of Sibelius. This is twilit, nature music, after all, and Ahonen’s rapt, attentive projection of it is gently electrifying, perfectly paced, and to my ears uniquely illuminating. As Thoreau fades out, in Ives’s words “the poet’s flute is heard out over the pond’. Sharon Bezaly’s evocation of this “ghost”, brief as it is, is unimpeachable and unforgettable. It is the clincher for this performance, together with Ahonen’s all but inaudible suggestion of the distant Concord bell that gently concludes it.
This 47-and-a-half-minute rendering of the Concord Sonata would be reason enough to acquire the disc. Quite apart from the performance, the piano sound is absolutely outstanding, even by BIS’s formidable standards. As it is, the Concord is coupled with a suave and affectionate account of Ives’s Fourth Violin Sonata, Childrens’ Day at the Camp Meeting. Here Ahonen is rejoined by his compatriot Pekka Kuusisto in a performance which perhaps smooths over some of the work’s angularity in favour of its nostalgia. Ives originally conceived the work for his 12-year-old nephew Moss White; in its brief duration liberal use is made of the hymn tunes Jesus Loves Me in the slow movement, and Nettleton in the final Allegro. Again, one cannot help but feel there is far more to this deceptively direct work than meets the ear. The splendid Finnish partnership hint at its mysteries while effortlessly projecting its sweetness and light. Once more, the recording is first-rate.
Notwithstanding its evocative subtitle, the Fourth Violin Sonata is certainly not a slight work, especially so in this performance; but it is Ahonen’s revelatory performance of the Concord Sonata that makes this disc treasurable. For me, Ives’s music has always merited the deepest concentration. From the conflict of its first moments, Ahonen’s Concord grabbed my attention and never let it slip. I truly hope that fellow listeners, whether confirmed Ives enthusiasts, or others curious about this singular composer but perhaps slightly intimidated by his music’s “difficult” reputation, reap similar rewards. An outstanding disc.