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CD Review: Two Recordings of Charles Ives’ Concord Symphony

There are two recordings of Henry Brant’s orchestration of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, taking this essential 20th-century piano work and expanding it for full orchestra.

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Ives’ Concord Sonata (Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-60) is the composer’s best-known work, and contains a concentrated version of many of Ives’ musical ideas. It is the work he poured much of his thought into, even going as far as writing a long essay, “Essay Before a Sonata” to amplify the work. Composer Henry Brant, who discovered Ives’ work at age 15, set out late in life to create an orchestral transcription of the sonata, turning this craggy piano work into an orchestral exploration containing its own share of asperities.

One cannot hope to compare the actual piano work to this transcription; the difference between the solo piano (even in Ives’ masterful use of the broad palette of colors available on the keyboard) and a full orchestra is vast. What Brant does is translate this work into another form. Eschewing much of the rhythmic material inherent in the piano, Brant opts for a transcription that brings in all the colors of the orchestra to interpret the sonata. For example, in the Emerson movement, the first part of the work and the most tempestuous, strong brass instruments are used in place of the harsh, fortissimo chords. Yet, later, woodwinds are at the heart of the more ethereal ending of the work, where subtle touches at the keyboard give melodic fragments.

In the Hawthorne movement, Brant chooses an almost Mahlerian selection of light instruments then heavy brasses to translate the rapid arpeggios and near tone clusters of the opening, before bringing in the string section. The Thoreau movement opens with a flute (which is appropriate, because of the use of the flute in some versions of the actual sonata, representing Thoreau’s playing a flute by Walden Pond), then using colorful oboe runs to lay out the melodies. Mellow strings stand behind as structural elements, and this, the most transcendent of the four movements of the sonata, starts with a smaller, less raucous treatment from the orchestra, before using a crescendo of brass and timpani. The main melodic phrase of this movement arises in many forms, though mainly played by the string section, and the orchestration of this part of the work may be the most delicately subtle sections of the symphony.

All in all, the contrasts between the different choices of instrumentation and the piano are similar to the difference between black-and-white and color; or, more correctly, black-and-white and grayscale. Not to suggest that the sonata played on the piano is in black and white; far from it. It is one of modern music’s most varied and colorful works for piano. But listening to one then the other shows that these are more two completely different works rather than simply a transcription. The highlights are different on the piano than where, in the orchestration, a choice of instruments makes certain phrases stand out.

For all that one may wonder at the choices of orchestration, this Concord Symphony simply works. It translates Ives’ vision into a different form, and does so extremely effectively. It gives the listener a new perspective on the brilliant work that is the Concord Sonata. This recording is certainly an essential addition to any Ives collection.

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I have a particular affinity for this work – the piano sonata version – being especially interested in the writers that Ives puts into music, and having some 15 recordings of the work. Performers of the sonata can approach it in many ways, choosing to highlight the tempestuousness of certain parts of the work (notably in the Emerson movement), focusing on the rhythmical aspects of the composition, or choosing tempi that are either very fast or much slower. (The recordings I have range from a speedy 38 minutes to a leisurely 62 minutes, with an average in the 45-50 minute range, or about the same tempo as this current recording.)

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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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Essential Music: Charles Ives

Scott Mortensen writes:

I vividly remember the first time I ever heard the music of Charles Ives. The piece was the raucous “Putnam’s Camp” movement from Three Places in New England. I’d never heard anything so immediate and vital and joyous; it made me laugh out loud with pleasure. My current favorite recording of this work is by conductor James Sinclair and the Orchestra New England, a disc that also includes Ives’ Four Ragtime Dances, the Set for Theatre Orchestra, and other short orchestral works. If you’ve never heard Ives’ music before, this is the perfect place to begin. To my ears, Ives’ Fourth Symphony is one of the great masterworks of the twentieth century. Ives’ Fourth is one of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’ specialties, and no one has surpassed his recording, which is coupled with Symphony No. 1. Tilson Thomas’ mastery of Ives’ music is also clear on his recording of the Holidays Symphony, an essential disc that also includes tremendous readings of “Central Park in the Dark” and “The Unanswered Question,” which is probably Ives’ best known composition.

Along with orchestral music, Ives composed a large body of songs and chamber works. For a fascinating selection of Ives’ songs, check out recital by mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and pianist Gilbert Kalish. DeGaetani has a completely idiomatic command of Ives’ unique musical language, and the disc demonstrates the enormous stylistic range of his songs.

Lastly, no survey of Ives’ essential music is complete without his Second Piano Sonata, subtitled “Concord, Mass., 1840-60.” Each movement of the sonata is a musical portrait of a New England Transcendentalist writer who inspired Ives: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Alcott family and Henry David Thoreau, and. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin has made two recordings of the “Concord.” They are very different, but each is stunning in its own way. For the more Olympian, thrusting view, seek out his first recording on New World; for a more inward, depths-plumbing perspective, try Hamelin’s recent recording on Hyperion.

Scott Mortensen is an avid fan of the music of Charles Ives, and has created the Internet’s most comprehensive web site on the composer.

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