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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Piano Sonata No. 1 (1901-1916, rev. 1921-1927) [40:46]
Bernhard GANDER (b. 1969)
Peter Parker (2004) [11:23]
Charles IVES
Three-Page Sonata (1907-1914, rev. 1925-1926) [8:10]
Joonas Ahonen (piano & celesta)
rec. August 2019, Sendesaal Bremen, Germany
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2409 SACD [61:27]

My reviewing year got off to an auspicious start with a splendid set of Charles Ives’s four numbered symphonies, courtesy of Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon). Then again, new recordings of this composer’s quirky, often audacious oeuvre are always welcome, the solo-piano works especially. The Three-Page Sonata and Piano Sonata No. 1 have always been overshadowed by No. 2, the so-called Concord Sonata, and one need only hear Marc-André Hamelin’s frankly unassailable performance of the latter to understand why (Hyperion CDA67469). That said, Ives’s two earlier contributions to the genre can be just as rewarding, as the recordings of Philip Mead (Metier MSVCD92037) and Tamara Stefanovich (Pentatone PTC5186741) amply demonstrate. As for the Austrian composer Bernhard Gander and his Spidey tribute, they’re both new to me.

According to his booklet bio, the Finnish pianist Joonas Ahonen is as much at home with an 18th-century fortepiano as he is playing in cutting-edge contemporary-music groups. He’s already given us a much-lauded Ives album, which includes a fine performance of the Concord Sonata, albeit the version for flute, viola and piano. (Richard Hanlon made it a Recording of the Month.) One of the most striking features of Ahonen’s playing is its emphasis on subtlety and nuance. But while that’s impressive in itself, I would have liked to hear more of Ives the iconoclast, and forward thinker. The Finn’s first sonata is broadly similar, with much to admire in terms of colour and detail. (Marion Schwebel’s transparent, utterly truthful recording is very much in sync with the pianist’s finely calibrated approach to the piece.) Again, I found myself yearning for a bit more poke to go with that poise. In short, I wanted a greater sense of the composer’s craft, his spontaneity and wit, all of which Ahonen’s rivals frame far more persuasively than he does.

The big advantage of Mead’s collection, Varied Air, is that it contains pretty decent versions of all three sonatas, plus a selection of sets and studies. The sound is good, too, if not quite up to BIS’s high standards. His playing in the first sonata may not be as insightful as Ahonen’s, but in mitigation it’s robust and communicative, with a sure sense of shape and purpose. But neither he nor Ahonen can begin to compete with Stefanovich, who delivers the most satisfying – the most complete – performance of this kaleidoscopic score. Those Ivesian japes and juxtapositions are genuinely exhilarating and she modulates easily from tough to tender and back again. Indeed, this is an exceptional release in every way, the immersive, you-are-there recording – made at the Teldex Studio Berlin – a wonder to behold. (What a treat it would be to hear this pianist in the Concord Sonata; I daresay she’d give Hamelin a run for his money.) As it happens, this 2019 Pentatone release, titled Influences, also includes very persuasive readings of Bartók’s Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, Messiaen’s Cantéyodjayâ and J. S. Bach’s Aria Variata in A minor. Not to be missed.

Peter Parker, Gander’s small contribution to the seemingly limitless Marvel franchise, finds Ahonen in arresting, highly animated form. It’s a virtuosic display that demands lightning-fast responses and complete control of the keyboard, and the Finn is well up to the challenge. I sense he’s very much in his element here, and that makes for a most engaging performance. As expected, the sound is forensic, but never fatiguing. And there’s more good news. Ahonen’s Three-Page Sonata is augmented here by the celesta; the latter’s bell-like tones are ideal for the Westminster chimes woven into this compact, yet wide-ranging piece. Throw in some early serialism, dances and ragtime and the full extent of Ives’s musical ambitions is revealed. What a delightful performance this is, Ahonen’s ability to bring out the kinder, gentler Ives put to good use in quieter passages. And what a pleasure to hear the gregarious, more dissonant ones essayed with such dynamism and character. Indeed, that goes some way towards making up for my earlier disappointment. Mead’s performance is very appealing, too; then again, his entire set – full of good things – is a mandatory purchase for Ives aficionados and pianophiles alike. As for the BIS release, Axel Petri-Preis’s very informative liner-notes are supplemented by a list of the composer’s trademark ‘borrowings’.

The shorter pieces come off best here; fine sonics all round.

Dan Morgan

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