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.
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.
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.)