Hyperion Records

Piano Sonata No 2 'Concord'

'Ives & Barber: Piano Sonatas' (CDA67469)
Ives & Barber: Piano Sonatas
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Movement 1: Emerson: Slowly
Movement 2: Hawthorne: Very fast
Movement 3: The Alcotts
Movement 4: Thoreau: Starting slowly and quietly

Piano Sonata No 2 'Concord'
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 here) 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.

from notes by Jed Distler © 2004

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