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Hyperion Records

CDA67469 - Ives & Barber: Piano Sonatas
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Release date: August 2004
Total duration: 62 minutes 14 seconds


'Hamelin's performance of the Concord Sonata is in the truest sense transcendental, his facility allowing him a cool poetry and lyricism inaccessible to other, more strenuously employed pianists … Hyperion's sound is immaculate and Hamelin's disc is a valuable addition to his unique, tirelessly evolving discography' (Gramophone)

'Reviewing the Mayer, I described Aimard's recording as 'of unmatchable vividness and panache'; but I must now transfer both the description and the recommendation to Hamelin' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Marc-André Hamelin, a pianist of phenomenal virtuosity and insight, never misses a trick. Pierre-Laurant Aimard's Warner account was perceptive enough, but Hamelin characterises the four movements with even greater imagination and encompasses the 42-minute span and unconventional trajectory with complete control' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Hamelin's account is more a mystical blending of textures than a studied delineation of them, with a ravishing soft tone and an almost childlike relish of simpler music' (The Independent)

'Hamelin's virtuosity has to be heard to be believed. There are places in both scores that almost defy what two hands are capable of. Yet Hamelin plays them as though he were unaware of their wrist-crippling certifiability' (Classic FM Magazine)

Ives & Barber: Piano Sonatas
Emerson: Slowly  [15'40]
The Alcotts  [5'17]
Allegro energico  [7'13]
Adagio mesto  [5'22]

America’s two greatest twentieth-century piano sonatas are here given predictably stunning performances by Marc-André Hamelin. This is the pianist’s second recording of the Ives ‘Concord Sonata’, a piece he has played for over twenty years in performances that have often been regarded as definitive. As his thoughts on this landmark work matured, Marc became very keen to revisit the work in the studio in this 50th anniversary year of Ives’s death.

The Barber is an apt if unusual coupling. Premiered by Horowitz, with a blisteringly virtuosic final fugue written specially at his suggestion, this is one of only a few modern piano works to have become a genuine audience favourite.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Though the pair of works on this recording have long been front-runners in the ‘Great American Piano Sonata’ sweepstakes, it would be hard to imagine two composers so diametrically opposed in terms of artistic intent and aesthetic outlook as Charles Ives and Samuel Barber. Ives was an outsider by temperament and choice. He worked by day as founding partner of the Ives and Myrick Insurance Company (later known as Mutual of New York), and at night, weekends and holidays forged his uncompromising, experimental style in deliberate isolation from the mainstream of musical fashion. By contrast, the American classical music establishment embraced Barber’s creative gifts and consummate craftsmanship from the beginning. Major ensembles like the Philadelphia Orchestra, NBC Symphony, and New York Philharmonic quickly took up Barber’s cause. No less a maestro than Arturo Toscanini premiered his First Essay for Orchestra and ubiquitous Adagio for Strings in 1938, while other significant premieres were entrusted to Eugene Ormandy (the Violin Concerto) and Bruno Walter (the Second Essay).

Ives’s advanced idiom, with its complicated textures, complex rhythms and convention-defying contours, was guaranteed to scare off musicians, let alone audiences. If the wildest, most cacophonous portions of the Fourth Symphony or the Second Sonata (‘Concord, Mass., 1840–1860’) recorded here can still baffle listeners fifty years after Ives’s death, imagine their effect upon audiences had these works actually received performances at the time of their composition, circa 1916. Fame and recognition eventually came to Ives in his final decade, but long after he had ceased to compose. Barber’s productivity considerably ebbed after the critical failure of his opera Anthony and Cleopatra, commissioned to open the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in 1966. With the perspective of time, perhaps it is not so far-fetched to notice what Barber’s Op 26 and Ives’s ‘Concord’ have in common besides a four-movement game plan and a protracted compositional gestation process. Each work puts its ideas across with force, fluidity, and unassailable conviction. Each exploits the piano’s dynamic and registral potential to the hilt, and likewise tests a pianist’s virtuosity and stamina, albeit in disparate ways. And to different ends, both works confound conventional notions of tonality.

The opening movement of Barber’s Piano Sonata, for example, does not firmly establish its home key of E flat minor until the final pages. A pillar-like dotted rhythmic figuration colours its main themes – the first hammered out in gnarly ascending and descending minor seconds, the second taking wing through more lyrical, arpeggiated gestures. The composer freely employs twelve-tone rows, not so much as organizational devices as much as to keep certain textural patterns fresh in the ear, such as the transition into the second theme (bars 20–22; track 5 from 0'18). Towards the end of the exposition Barber thickens the plot by introducing a supporting character in the form of a declamatory repeated-noted motif. The latter plays a crucial and decisive role as the development section increases in propulsion and heft, while commanding a gentle yet firm presence as the movement winds down.

Like all successful magic acts, the scherzo’s nimble demeanor and myriad sleights of hand manage to delight the senses while keeping the audience slightly off balance. Such ‘tricks’ include flirting back and forth between double and triple metre, playful bitonality, and an occasional, sardonic glance down to the piano’s bottom range from the music’s high-register perch. If the few minutes required to play the scherzo feel over before they begin, the Adagio mesto’s four-plus minutes could seemingly go on for ever, and we’d be none the wiser. The composer’s biographer Nathan Broder called this spacious and elaborate lamentation ‘the most tragic of all of Barber’s slow movements’. Here Barber’s use of tone rows within accompanimental figures and to enhance the music’s melodic trajectory truly comes into its own. One wonders if the movement’s imposing passacaglia structure was a response to Barber’s intense immersion in Bach at the time of composition (he had recently purchased all forty-seven volumes of the Bach-Gesellschaft).

The fugal finale, however, aspires to instrumental as well as compositional virtuosity, inspired, no doubt, by the singular abilities of Barber’s friend, the pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who had premiered the composer’s Excursions for piano solo in 1945. Barber had first conceived the Sonata as a three-movement entity concluding with the Adagio mesto, but Horowitz suggested that the work would sound better if he made ‘a very flashy last movement, but with content’. To Horowitz, Barber was ‘one of the few American composers who knows how to write for the piano’. In turn, Barber admitted that his piano writing was influenced by Horowitz’s playing, and his teenage studies with the redoubtable Isabelle Vengerova reinforced his own predilection for the Russian style of pianism with its wide range of colors, subtle tempo fluctuation, and huge sonorities – all quintessential Horowitzian qualities.

Although the Sonata (commissioned in the autumn of 1947 by Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers in honour of the League of Composers’ twenty-fifth anniversary) was not specifically written for Horowitz, the pianist’s highly acclaimed premiere performances during the 1950–51 concert season quickly established the work in the international repertoire, and not just with younger musicians. The late American pianist Mary Louise Boehm had prepared the Sonata for its Amsterdam and Paris premieres, and brought a copy to her teacher Walter Gieseking. ‘He asked to try it out’, she recalled to this writer, ‘and was fascinated by the music, realizing immediately that it was a great piece. He read through the first three movements just like that. But when it came to the Fugue he got stuck!’ Small wonder that one of the Sonata’s adoring fans, Francis Poulenc, declared the sparkling finale ‘a knockout’.

‘I can’t bear Ives’, Barber told the composer and writer Philip Ramey in a late-1970s interview. ‘It is now unfashionable to say this, but in my opinion he was an amateur, a hack who didn’t put pieces together well. I once attended one of [Aaron] Copland’s Tanglewood classes for composers in which Aaron announced somewhat peremptorily, “Here in Tanglewood we have decided that Charles Ives is a great composer!” I backed my car out onto Route 183 and drove away without comment.’

Had Ives witnessed this event, might he have bid Barber good riddance? Whether or not Ives knew Barber’s music, the chances are that he would have frowned upon his younger colleague’s innate conservatism and unabashed Romantic tendencies. If Barber’s use of dissonance, to paraphrase the legendary Muhammad Ali’s credo, ‘floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee’, Ives often makes a beeline for the jugular. There is little, if any, surface elegance in Ives’s granite-shaped, declamatory chords, flurries of nervous arpeggios, deliberately dented military marches, and plain-spoken evocations of the hymn tunes and camp songs that shaped his New England youth. Whereas Barber’s thorniest piano writing never disregards keyboard geography and logic, Ives is less concerned with ‘playability’ than with getting his ideas across. He is less interested in the sonata as an abstract ideal than as a reflection of real life, much in the sense that Mahler viewed his symphonies as worlds in and of themselves. ‘Reality is both rational and irrational’, explained composer-pianist Frederic Rzewski to this writer. ‘The universe has a structure that can be understood with elements that can be predicted, but there are also things that have no structure and cannot be predicted. So I think it’s interesting to have both, and very often pieces of music have what can be a very elaborate structure and at the same time a basically chaotic spin which goes nowhere and that may lead to unpredictable and even incoherent results. And I think this helps to make the music more like real life.’ Rzewski was speaking of his own work, yet these words easily reflect the essence of Ives, and, in particular, his ‘Concord’ Sonata.

Although he underwent conventional music schooling (with Horatio Parker at Yale) and worked professionally as an organist and choirmaster for a brief time, Ives’s penchant for experimentation stemmed from childhood. His music-teacher father, George Ives, introduced his son to idiosyncratic ways of musical thinking, and encouraged him to ‘stretch his ears’ by singing a song in one key while his father accompanied him in another. And if Ives sometimes tripped over the thin line that separates the independent thinker from the crank, his core musicianship should not be underestimated. Not only did Ives mean what he composed, but he could play it too, as a series of privately made recordings with Ives at the piano proudly bears out.

In September 1911 Ives first conceived the idea of a piano sonata whose four movements would evoke key literary and philosophical figures in the Transcendentalist movement that had flourished in Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid-nineteenth century. The music’s genesis stemmed in part from earlier ideas and sketches (Ives was an inveterate recycler): a 1904 sketch for an ‘Alcotts’ Overture, a substantial 1907 sketch for an ‘Emerson’ Piano Concerto (the soloist representing Ralph Waldo Emerson with the orchestra members portraying his receptive followers), plus ideas inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story The Celestial Railroad (which would eventually find their way into a separate solo piano piece of the same name). Only the concluding ‘Thoreau’ movement was composed from scratch, so to speak, although its material did double duty via Ives’s song of the same name. After finishing the score in 1915, Ives began a series of essays purporting to reflect on the four authors, but in reality expounding upon his own aesthetics, techniques and methods. These materialized into the collection known as Essays Before a Sonata, and were published concurrently with the Sonata in 1920, at Ives’s expense.

The composer and writer Kyle Gann astutely pinpointed the ‘Concord’ Sonata’s radical nature in its reversal of the usual European-based convention of a large, multi-movement work progressing from unity to multiplicity. Ives reverses this paradigm by starting with complexity and mass (qualities that run rampant throughout ‘Emerson’ and ‘Hawthorne’), and eventually winding his way down towards simplifying the textures and bringing the melodic and thematic elements into sharper and calmer focus in the more lyrical, reflective ‘Alcotts’ and ‘Thoreau’ movements. This does not mean that the issues have been sorted out, for the final page flirts between C major and D flat major, gently but firmly refusing to resolve. The celebrated four-note ‘fate knocking at the door’ motif that starts Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony serves as a binding agent, transformed from a craggy, pounding emblem within the tumultuous scenario of ‘Emerson’ to its plaintive, trusting, hymn-like guide in ‘The Alcotts’.

For all of the ‘Concord’ Sonata’s instinctive cohesion and sustained invention, an improvisatory impulse governs its sense of flow and declamation. Ives himself never played the work the same way twice, and often interpolated additions, note changes, and even passages that were not written out. ‘This is the only piece which every time I play it or turn to it, seems unfinished’, he said. The standard 1947 revised edition generally used today (and used by Marc-André Hamelin for the present recording) incorporates numerous changes and corrections Ives had made over the years since the work first appeared. Still, Ives scholars perusing earlier source material will find fascinating and plausible alternative readings. One major issue for pianists tackling the ‘Concord’ concerns the brief two-bar ad-lib viola line at the end of ‘Emerson’, and the additional flute part gracing the last two pages of ‘Thoreau’. According to the composer and Ives specialist James Tenney, the line is a point of reference to the music’s earlier incarnation as part of the aforementioned, unfinished ‘Emerson’ Concerto, where it is played by the viola. The pianist can either play it or not in ‘Emerson’. What’s significant is that Ives refers to this ad-lib line as a ‘viola part’, not as a line explicitly to be played by a violist in a performance of the ‘Concord’ Sonata. For this reason Marc-André Hamelin plays the line himself (on the piano, not the viola!). Although Ives considered the flute part in ‘Thoreau’ optional (and provides an alternative, solo piano reading of that music), the effect evokes Ives’s image of Henry David Thoreau playing his flute over Walden Pond with a touching immediacy that the solo piano reading only suggests.

Jed Distler © 2004

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