This is one of the recordings that I picked up after deciding to build this site. I admit that I'd never really appreciated Ives' violin sonatas until Shannon and Fulkerson opened my eyes. This is powerful music and striking music-making. Shannon and Fulkerson sound completely idiomatic, fully inside these works. They also make a terrific case for the violin sonatas as something more serious than the lightweight works that Ives sometimes made them out to be. For instance, take the Fourth Sonata: I was struck by the color and rhythmic variety that the musicians brought to the first Allegro movement. Shannon in particular seems to have the full measure of this movement. The Largo movement is a fantasia on the hymn "Jesus Loves Me." If you grew up the Christian church like I did, this tune has strong, simple, and youthful connotations. But you've never heard it like this before. In Ives's characteristic way, he has the violinist take apart the tune and rhapsodically reassemble it in a series of variations. Ives simultaneously combines the tune with another musical layer--carried by the piano--that transforms the hymn into something both utterly familiar and vitally new. Eventually, both musical strands culminate in a complete statement of the original tune over a mystical, rippling devotional that fades into silence. Incredible. Shannon and Fulkerson also pull it off the dance-like final Allegro movement perfectly. It abruptly stops, concluding with a question mark (very much like the ending of the Second Violin Sonata). Shannon and Fulkerson's traversals of the other three sonatas are equally impressive. If you're interested in checking out Ives' chamber music, this is a great place to begin.
Violin Sonatas, Nos. 1-4 / "Hammers and Strings" / Lisa Tipton (violin) & Adrienne Kim (piano) (Capstone CPS-8760; available online at www.capstonerecords.org)
These are excellent recordings of Ives' four violin sonatas. Both Tipton and Kim seem very attuned to the folksy, idiomatic elements in this music, and they don't hesitate to give full rein to its rowdier aspects. (Recordings of Ives' violin sonatas often seem to fall short in this area by sticking too closely to traditional European chamber music models.) For an example of Tipton and Kim's assurance, listen to the "In the Barn" movement in the Second Sonata. Kim pounds away (check out those deliciously deep notes at the end of the movement), and Tipton's fiddle work is bracing and fun--just like it should be. Like the title says, this is a barn dance, not a salon soiree. I should note that in some places, Tipton's tone is not especially fulsome. In fact, Kim's bold sound occasionally seems to drown out Tipton's. (This may be a function of the recording process.) But this is a minor quibble. Also, these musician do more than realize the folksy qualities in this music. They do a fine job of conveying the gentle, reflective, and reverential aspects of this music. While this recording may not surpass my reference, Fulkerson and Shannon's, it is a clear winner. This recording also offers a clear alternative for those seeking a version of these works that costs less than Bridge's full-price two-disc set.
Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 / Paul Zukofsky (violin) & Gilbert Kalish (piano) (Folkways FW03346; available online at www.smithsonianglobalsound.org)
These are very fine recordings of Ives' first two sonatas for violin and piano. I definitely prefer these earlier recordings, made in 1964, to Zukofsky and Kalish's Nonesuch recordings, which were released a decade later. These recordings have far more rhythmic impetus, while also sounding wonderfully gentle and inward in the slow movements. As an aside, I've got to mention that I love the covers on these two Smithsonian Folkways recordings. Compared to many other Ives LP or CD covers, these seem to capture something of the folksy and transcendental Ivesian musical spirit.
Violin Sonatas Nos. 3 & 4 / Paul Zukofsky (violin) & Gilbert Kalish (piano) (Folkways FW03347; available online at www.smithsonianglobalsound.org)
Everything I said about Zukofsky and Kalish's recordings of Ives' first two sonatas applies equally to their recordings of his third and fourth. I should note that the Fourth Sonata is particularly beautiful, especially in the gentle and wistful Largo movement. Both of these recordings are available as conventional compact discs from the Smithsonian Global Sound web site. In addition, they are also available as downloads if you prefer that medium.
Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-4 / Rafael Druian (violin) & John Simms (piano) (Philips World Series PHS 2-002, out of print; originally issued on Mercury LPs MG-50096 and MG-50097)
The best thing going for this recordings is the lovely playing of Rafael Druian. His violin tone is full and assured. Both musicians seem to approach Ives' violin sonatas from the European Romantic tradition. On the other hand, the folksy, idiomatic aspects of this recording are less pronounced. John Simms' playing in particular sometimes comes across as four-square. These pieces blossom when played by more rhythmically incisive, thrusting pianists.
Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-4 / Paul Zukofsky (violin) & Gilbert Kalish (piano) (Nonesuch HB-73025, out of print LPs)
I prefer these musicians' first recordings of these works on the Smithsonian Folkways label. The Nonesuch recordings come across as more reflective and inward, but they sometimes lack forward momentum and drive. These recordings are also the slowest I have heard. For example, in the Fourth Sonata the timings are as follows: i. 1.59; ii. 7.23; iii. 2.26. As a representative example, compare this with Zukofsky and Kalish's earlier recording on Folkways. On that recording, they traverse the piece much more quickly (except for the first movement): i. 2.17; ii. 6.07; iii. 1.49. In the end, I find Zukofsky and Kalish's interpretation too self-regarding to give the Nonesuch recording an unqualified recommendation.
This is a interesting recording of Ives' violin sonatas; it is different than any of the other recordings reviewed here. Whereas most musicians seem to emphasize the music's reflective, nostalgic elements, Schneeberger and Cholette are more attuned to the abstract qualities in the music. On balance, I find that I still prefer the traditional approach, exemplified by Shannon and Fulkerson. To my ears, these artists manage to capture something wonderfully magical and mysterious that just eludes Schneeberger and Cholette. However, I should note that some critics have given high praise to this ECM disc. For example, it was awarded five stars in a BBC Music Magazine review. Another bonus: The ECM recording squeezes all four sonatas on a single disc. So it's less expensive than the full-price two-disc Bridge set.
Violin Sonata No. 4 / Joseph Szigeti (violin) & Andor Foldes (piano) / "The Recordings with Bela Bartok and Andor Foldes" (Biddulph 2CD LAB 070-71, coupled with music by other composers, out of print)
This was the premiere recording of the Fourth Violin sonata, originally issued on Henry Cowell's New Music label (which Ives was helping to finance) in 1942. It's a pioneering recording, and an interesting one, though one must make allowances for the age of the recording. Also, Szigeti's tone doesn't sound particularly American. In fact, his Hungarian roots are obvious, and at times his playing sounds more like a gypsy than a Connecticut Yankee. But it's still interesting to hear a world-class violinist interpret Ives' music, especially considering the date. And I'm sure that this recording did a great deal to raise awareness of Ives' music.
There's nothing wrong with these recordings, but they're not particularly exciting either--especially in light of the tough competition from others. Margalit, in particular, occasionally seems a bit unsure about Ives' idiom, especially compared to a pianist like Robert Shannon, who has also recorded Ives' Second Piano Sonata and seems completely attuned to Ives' musical sound world.
Glazer and Taylor only occasionally generate the rhapsodic transcendence that the best recordings (such as the one by Shannon and Fulkerson) find regularly. Another negative: When I purchased these used LPs they were already well worn. But I suspect that these records were never especially good sonically, even when they were new. Also, this set is out of print, so it will be hard to find.
Selected other recordings of Ives' Violin Sonatas include: