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Charles Ives
Four Violin Sonatas
Hilary Hahn (violin) and Valentina Lisitsa (piano)
Review By Max Westler

 

  Charles Ives 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.

 

 

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