Four Violin Sonatas
Hilary Hahn (violin) and Valentina Lisitsa
Review By Max Westler
might not be the "Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson of our music," as
Leonard Bernstein claimed when he introduced the composer to a national radio
audience in 1958, but his wayward career certainly does summon up some mythic
American archetypes: the frontiersman who stakes his claim in the wild; the
self-taught tinkerer/inventor whose crackpot idea just might actually work. Ives
gave up writing music in 1928 at the age of 55. His wife later recalled: "He
came downstairs with tears in his eyes, and said he couldn't compose anymore
-- nothing went well, nothing sounded right." But until that moment and for
his entire creative life, Ives worked outside the mainstream, completely removed
from any academic or critical musical establishment. Lesser souls might have
wilted in such isolation, but Ives blossomed, thrived. With only himself to
please, he was totally free to follow his own creative lights; he could travel
to wherever his fecund musical imagination led him.
Ives is often associated with the New England "Transcendalist" writers whose musical portraits he drew in the
"Concord" Sonata: Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts. But to me
the writer he most resembles is Walt Whitman; an artist who, like Ives, spoke in
a distinctly American voice It was Whitman who said, "Do I contradict
myself?/Very well then, I contradict myself./I am large and contain
multitudes." Contradictions have always been at the heart of Ives' music and
account for its highly unstable chemistry. Ives liked to create a field of play
in which opposites could freely interact---sometimes to clash, sometimes to
reveal surprising affinities. The music is a volatile mix, constantly
transforming itself, and therefore continually surprising and unpredictable.
If you don't already know Ives' music, there
seems to me no better introduction than the four sonatas for violin and piano he
composed between 1902 and1916, at the very height of his powers. At the heart of
these works are the patriotic songs and marches, the Protestant hymns, and the
well-trod melodies Ives first heard as a boy growing up in rural Danbury,
Connecticut. This homespun music (and the memories it evoked) remained the
bedrock of Ives' inspiration throughout his career. Ives was the first
American composer to attempt to reconcile European art music and popular, native
sources. By the time Gershwin premiered his Rhapsody
in Blue, audiences were willing to accept an amalgam of jazz and
symphonic music, but in the early part of the century, quoting a well-known tune
(say, "Turkey in the Straw") in a serious classical composition was
considered shocking, amateurish, and unacceptable. So maybe it's just as well
Ives went his own way, and remained blithely indifferent to received wisdom.
Happily, he had a day job, managing a very successful insurance business.
Though each of the four violin sonatas has its
own special character, structurally they are all of a piece. A hymn tune will be
suggested, stated, developed, deconstructed, and then reassembled as something
both borrowed and new. Ives later looked back dismissively on these works, which
he called "weak-minded and retrogressive," a "slump backward." And
indeed these sonatas are more conventional works than some of his more
deliberately provocative, experimental compositions. Still, this is music that
could only have been written by Charles Ives. As James Hepokoski has said of
these sonatas, "Ives reworked these memory-traces and swirled them together in
stubbornly original juxtapositions of traditional or almost traditional
harmonies, ‘wrong-note' harmonies, and emphatically dissonant harmonies --
polychords, chordal clusters, and ‘freely experimental' counterpoint." The
results are compelling throughout, often gorgeous, and full of surprising turns.
The Third Sonata, by far the longest, is one of the great masterpieces of
American music, and a work that anyone interested in this repertory should go
out of his way to know.
Hilary Hahn and Valentina Lisitsa are probably
the two most accomplished performers to take on these works, and their
virtuosity brings some decided advantages: a rich, lustrous tone that gives this
music a resonance and splendor it lacks in other performances, and in more lyric
passages the ability to sustain a long, singing line. In the faster music --
say, the "hoedown" second movement of the Second Sonata, or the highly
syncopated ragtime of the Third Sonata -- Hahn and Lisitsa play with a
bristling, freewheeling virtuosity that's completely winning.
Still there's a problem. One can hardly blame a
virtuoso artist for wanting to smooth over the difficulties and challenges in
the score being performed; it's what instinct and training have taught.
However, in Ives, that tendency to streamline the music can also misrepresent
it. The composer George Perle once told a class, "I know I'm listening to
Ives when there's ‘something wrong.'" And Ives once admonished a
copyist: "Dear Mr. Price: Please don't try to make things nice! All the
wrong notes are right!" Which is to say, sometimes the music needs to sound
rough-hewn, disruptive, a little sour. Hahn and Lisitsa tend to homogenize Ives,
making him sometimes sound too much like the European art music he was trying to
infuse with a shot of good, old American grit. There's a case to be made for
competitive versions that might not be able to summon up the wide dynamic range
of Hahn/Lisitsa, but that do let us hear more of the "unvarnished truth."
Here I'm thinking of (and can highly recommend) Fulkerson/Shannon on Bridge,
and the recent, cost-efficient Thompson/Waters on Naxos.
Still, I find it hard to dismiss performances
that are this brilliantly played and interpretively engaging. Hahn and Lisitsa
took these works on the road after long study. If not quite as definitive as one
might have wished, this recording is clearly a labor of love, and though one can
question some of their choices, Hahn/Lisitsa's sincerity, seriousness, and
love for the music are never in question. My one caveat aside, I'm
recommending this disc to those who don't already know the music, and also to
those who might have one or more of the competing versions. Hahn/Lisitsa might
not have the last word here, but what they do have to say is definitely worth
hearing. Great sound too.