Ives Concord Sonata, Songs Review

Album. Released 2004.  

BBC Review

The 'Concord' Sonata is a conceptual collage fraught with intellectual and technical...

Andrew McGregor 2004

The 'Concord' Sonata by Charles Ives may attempt to break the sound barrier, at least in pianistic terms, but the title refers to a time and place in American history long before jet travel. It was written in 1912 as an attempt to present one person's impression of the spirit of the literature, the philosophy, and the men of Concord, Mass. of over a half-century ago.

Concord, Massachusetts, reeks of American history and literature. The site of the battle that began the American Revolution , Concord was also home to some of the most original thinkers and writers of the American literary renaissance: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and novelists Nathaniel Hawthorn and the Alcotts- father Bronson and daughter Louisa May (their home, Orchard House in Concord, was the one described in 'Little Women'). Ives was born in neighbouring Connecticut 8 years before Emerson's death, and shared his transcendentalist philosophy. Each movement of this Sonata bears its own dedication: Emerson, then Hawthorne, The Alcotts and Thoreau.

It's a sprawling symphony of semi-realised ideas, flashes of inspiration, immense toil and flights of philosophical and musical fancy. It's a conceptual collage fraught with intellectual and technical difficulties...which makes Pierre-Laurent Aimard a near-perfect match, a pianist who revels in Ives's ideas and who's equal to the almost insane physical demands of the 'Concord' Sonata.

The essence of the work is this conflict between the loftiness of the ideas, and man's struggle to articulate them. Ive's wanted to set unattainable goals for his pianist; you're supposed to strive for perfection, and there's nothing ignoble about falling short of it. The journey is more important than the destination, so quite what the composer would make of a pianist who seems equal to the challenge, I'm not sure; maybe he'd have raised the bar even higher?

Ives evokes Beethoven's challenge to pianists and listeners a century earlier, quoting the Hammerklavier Sonata in each movement...alongside the nostalgic simplicity of hymn tunes, and snatches of marches and parlour songs. The optional viola and flute parts for the first movement and finale are only a few bars long, and float ethereally into and out of view, like half-remembered memories.

Already this is a strongly recommendable disc, but the icing on the cake is the 17 Ives songs that precede the Sonata: 'a kind of laboratory of ideas' Aimard has called them, sung with unselfconscious American intonation and a rare beauty of tone and line by mezzo Susan Graham. It's as though the 'Concord' Sonata has been broken into its constituent elements to aid our understanding of it, before Aimard reassembles it before our eyes and ears. Ives needs friends like these, and what a result: intelligent programming, breathtaking performances, and a crystal clear recording.

Like This? Try These:
Ives: An American Journey (Thomas Hampson)
James MacMillan: Raising Sparks
Messiaen: Vingts Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus (Steven Osborne)

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