Album Notes: Charles Ives’ Violon Sonatas, by Hilary Hahn and Valentina Lisitsa

Charles Ives (1874-1954) is one of America’s most iconoclastic composers. Not a “professional” music maker, his modernist music was largely ignored during his lifetime, but that didn’t prevent him from composing music that stands out as unique and surprising. After studying music at Yale, he went on to make a large number of money in the insurance business, composing in his spare time. He wrote four symphonies, two piano sonatas, two string quartets, 114 songs, a handful of other works, and the four sonatas for violin and piano on this disc.

It’s refreshing to see a violinist of Hilary Hahn’s stature record these four violin sonatas, which have seen a handful of recordings, but never one as high-profile as this one. The performances of these works are sensitive and intimate, and the sound is excellent. The rapport between Hahn and Lisitsa is also evident, as they perform these difficult works in close symbiosis.

Ives’ music is tonal at times, atonal at others (particularly as his music evolved over the years), and notably features a number of “quotations” of American popular and folk songs. Listening to this music demands a great deal of patience, especially if you’re discovering Ives’ idiom for the first time. But this recording is an excellent way to discover Ives’ unique sound world. (The other place to start is with his wonderful Concord Sonata for piano – I have a special appreciation for this recording by Donna Coleman – which puts to music the ideas of the great inhabitants of Concord, Massachusetts: Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts and Thoreau. And while I’m on the subject, let me point out this astounding orchestration of the Concord Sonata, by Henry Brant, and recorded by the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas, who is a champion of Ives’ music.)

I’d like to note one criticism of this disc. Too often, recordings are made where one cannot take the time to appreciate the end of one work – especially if it consists of multiple movements – and the beginning of the next work. Some labels pay careful attention to this, adding extra silence between works. On this recording, there is hardly any silence, and you go from one work to the next without realizing, at times, that it’s a different sonata. It doesn’t cost anything to add silence, and it helps the listener appreciate the music, when they have a bit of time to reflect after a work ends.

Here’s Hilary Hahn in an NPR “Tiny Desk Concert,” performing some Bach, and some of the tunes that Ives uses in the violin sonatas:

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