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S & H Article

Heather OíDonnell on Charles Ives


S & H Competition News Postscript to International Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition 2001, Rotterdam (PGW)

Seen&Heard congratulates Heather O'Donnell upon receiving first prize in the soloists category at the 5th Krzysztof Penderecki International Competition of Contemporary Chamber Music, Krakow, October 2001 and also being awarded the special prize for best performance of a work by a Dutch composer, funded by the Gaudeamus Foundation.
[ Heather O'Donnell at Rotterdam Conservatory, having just learned that she failed to qualify for the Finals of the Gaudeamus Competition]

...Memorable performancesÖAmongst several pianists, we would certainly have awarded the palm to Heather O'Donnell, who gave the best performance we heard of Jonathan Harvey's popular Tombeau for Messiaen for piano with tape, despite the constant balance control by the operator, upon which it depends for its full realisation, not having been forthcoming. She played with easy mastery and very evident enjoyment a good range of music from Ulrich Leyendecker's tiny, scintillating Chopinesque Bagatelles to Automne a Varsovie, the most evocative of Ligeti's brain and finger-twisting studies. Her two semi-final recitals concluded with as fine an account of one of the most modern of 20th C. piano works (Ives' Hawthorne of 1912!) as you are likely to be lucky enough to encounter. - - (PGW)

Charles IVES Piano Sonata No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 2 Ė Concord; Three Page Sonata
Studies No. 2, No. 9, No, 20, No. 21, No. 22, No. 23; Waltz-Rondo; Five Take-Offs

Philip Mead piano with Helen Brammen (flute) and Elena Artemonova (viola)


Philip Meadís double-CD recording of the majority of Charles Ivesís piano music serves to place Ivesís two monumental Sonatas in the context of several of his smaller pieces. By listening to the rarely performed Studies and Take-Offs as well as the wonderful Three-Page Sonata, and Waltz Rondo, one can perceive the process of Ivesís compositional development in the first decade of the twentieth-century, as he experimented with ideas, motives, and new techniques that prepared him for the composition of his two Sonatas.

The dates assigned to Ivesís works are often problematic as the larger pieces were not so much "composed" but rather "evolved" over the period of a decade or more. Ivesís idea to create a musical depiction of the Concord writers came as early as 1904 with a sketch for an Alcott Overture, as well as a 1907 Emerson Overture/Piano Concerto, and a 1909 solo piano work The Celestial Railroad based Hawthorneís short story of the same name. With such a long gestation period for the Concord Sonata, the ideas from this work permeate much of his other compositions from the same time, and there is a nearly constant overlap of motives (the BACH theme plays a large role in the Three-Page Sonata, and the First Sonata, and makes a "guest appearance" in the Hawthorne movement of the Concord Sonata), rhythmic ideas, quotations, and harmonies in much of his work from this period.

Philip Meadís careful selection of pieces to accompany the Sonatas gives one a sense of the developmental stages (the drawing board) of the Ivesian musical language that came to culmination so beautifully with works like the Fourth Symphony and the Concord Sonata. These smaller pieces are not to be viewed merely as sketches or referential works; the Three-Page Sonata, played with impassioned urgency by Mead, and the Waltz Rondo stand as autonomous entities, albeit on a much less grand scale than his first and second Sonatas.

Any attempt to critique the interpretation of Ivesís music must be accompanied by the statement that Ives welcomed and encouraged a wide range of interpretive decisions. Many parameters are deliberately left open to the performer, as is clear in the indications from the First Sonata: "The chorus is an impromptu affair (as is also the rest to some extent) and may be varied according to the tempo taken", or "[This section] may be repeated 2 or 3 times ad lib.", or "Either of these last 5/8th beats may be left out- not both!". In performance instructions for the Concord Sonata, Ives indicates that "there are many passages not to be played too evenly and in which the tempo is not precise or static; it varies usually with the mood of the day, as well as that of Emerson, the other Concord bards, and the player. A metronome cannot measure Emersonís mind and over-soul, any more than the old Concord Steeple Bell couldÖThe same essay or poem of Emerson may bring a slightly different feeling when read at sunrise than when read at sunset." Thus, the performer makes fundamental choices that sharply individualize each performance. The general impression I came away with from Philip Meadís Ives is akin to the famous Ives photograph by Eugene Smith: Ives clutching onto his walking stick, and glowering into the camera (but with a roguish twinkle in the eye). Mead enjoys the angularity of Ivesís phrasing, the sudden outbursts of an irascible character. He seems to create tight order in music that could seem improvisatory. His Emerson (rather on the quick side) highlights an intuitive form that in other performances can seem rambling.

What seems lacking are the "transcendental" elements, those aspects that inspired Ives to write in his 82-page program note "Essays before a Sonata": "Thus is Emerson always beating down through the crust towards the first fire of life, of death, and of eternity" or " There is an Ďoracleí at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony - in those four notes lie one of Beethovenís greatest messagesÖ the Soul of humanity knocking at the door of the Divine mysteries, radiant in the faith that it will be opened - and the human become the Divine!" When one hears Ivesís own recordings of material from Emerson, one hears less a performance of a particular piece of music, and more a rapturous musical exploration into philosophic, spiritual, and intellectual realms.

Meadís performance of Hawthorne (the second movement of the Concord Sonata, functioning in this very loose sonata structure as the Scherzo movement) seems to begin in an environment that is too mundane, too real. Going back to Ivesís Essays, I have difficulty finding the elements in Meadís interpretation that are "dripping wet with the supernatural, the phantasmal, the mystical- so surcharges with adventures, from the deeper picturesque to the illusive fantastic". Meadís Hawthorne generates excitement and energy, but through pianistic force - the music stays on the ground. There could be more rhythmic strength in the March and Ragtime sections (listening to Ivesís own recording in which he accompanies himself singing a particularly raucous version of "They are There" shows how powerful and supple his own rhythmic instinct was). The third movement, The Alcotts, is played in a simple, unaffected way, full of sentiment without relying on sentimentality.

Meadís depiction of Thoreau seems too local. It joins Thoreau during his day at Walden Pond, without, however, conveying a sense for the fundamental, mystical discovery that Thoreau (according to Ives) was experiencing there. Mead carefully clears out much of the pedal resonance, allowing changes of harmony to be heard, but in doing so disturbs the "vibration of the universal lyre" (Essays) that the music and text imply. The entrance of the flute on the second to last page of the 68-page score has always seemed to me to be conceptually brilliant, but difficult to realize effectively. John Kirkpatrick, the pianist who premiered the Sonata, chose to leave out this flute part. Perhaps in Meadís recording the flute could have been less soloistic, and less present - Thoreauís flute heard at dusk over Walden Pond from a great distance.

When we come to music with less lofty programmatic intentions, such as the First Sonata, and several of the Studies, one cannot help but ask the following question: Why does much of Ivesís music that depicts baseball games, country fairs, and Connecticut life from the 1880ís and 90ís sound so elemental and epic? In the First Sonata there are moments of levity (the scherzo movements (2a, 2b, 4a, and 4b), but the majority is quite ponderous. Mead brings out the struggle and the angularity of this music. The first movement is played in a directional and disciplined way, allowing for a wonderful contrasting moment of repose at the end of the movement with the first full statement of the "theme", the hymn tune of Lebanon. The four (!) scherzo movements could use a more celebratory sense of abandon, with a stronger rhythmic drive, and one can imagine the third movement reaching a much more ecstatic pitch at the climax on the What a Friend We Have in Jesus-theme.

To conclude, it is important to mention the evident care for and devotion to Ivesís music that Philip Mead displays: From his introductory CD liner notes on the piano music of Ives to the choice (in conjunction with his producer David Lefeber) of recording space and piano used, all in order to create a sonic environment more conducive to Ivesís music than the generic "digital" sound of most contemporary recordings.

Heather OíDonnell

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