IVES: Violin Sonatas 1-4.
Hilary Hahn (violin); Valentina Lisitska (piano).
Deutsche Grammophon 001608202 TT: 66:24.
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Charlie and his fiddle. Odd to say, but Ives's violin sonatas have crept
into the Modern repertory. As idiosyncratic as anything by Ives, they nevertheless
have appealed to at least some well-known violinists through the years,
at least since Szigeti, who, indulging his taste for the out-of-the-way,
recorded the fourth. I first heard the entire set through a Nonesuch LP
with violinist Paul Zukofsky and pianist Gilbert Kalish. Back then, this
was forbidding, unfamiliar music, and I can't say that I listened to it
much. The more violinists have taken these things up, the easier they seem
to go down.
Coming off two milestone recordings -- the concerti by Schoenberg and by
Higdon -- Hahn has consistently shown an intelligence willing to go beyond
the usual, although she plays that, too. Her chief trait as a player is
an extremely graceful lyricism. She seems to intuit the shape of phrases.
In the case of Schoenberg, this isn't easy. The violin concerto always
struck me as one of his knottiest orchestral works. Like no other violinist
I've heard, Hahn unsnarled the lines, revealing the high Romanticism of
the work -- Schoenberg sung, beautifully. Now she approaches Ives in a
I once read a review of a CD with works by Ives and Barber. The writer
complained about mixing a Modern (Ives) and a Romantic (Barber), and I
now believe that he had mixed them up. Ives's technical innovations matter
less than his notions of how music moves. Barber, despite a traditional
surface, ruthlessly trims ornament and digression. For Ives, on the other
hand, digression is practically a modus operandi. Further, the more I listen
to Ives, the less important his technical innovations and the more striking
the nineteenth-century elements of his music become. Indeed, much of the
music moves very much like Wagner's, especially something like the Siegfried-Idyl. Ives's well-known quoted tunes function like Wagner's Leitmotiven,
and he proceeds from one to another rather freely. There's often even
either stated, as in the "Concord" Sonata or The
or implicit, as in the violin sonatas. I should note that none of the
sonatas was written in one go. Rather, Ives "assembled" a sonata's
movements over a number of years and likely revised them slightly after
he had brought
Ives thought of the first as separate from the others, a blend of his "old" and "new" styles.
On the other hand, I can detect very little difference among the first
three sonatas. The first, I suspect, has something to do with the Civil
War. Born seven years after war's end, Ives nevertheless felt that event
very keenly, much as World War II lies in the background of baby boomers.
Growing up, he would have lived among many veterans. Unusually, Ives engages
in very little direct quoting. But his ideas take the shape of familiar
tunes: "The Battle Cry of Freedom" and other Civil War marches,
Stephen Foster ballads, "Bringing in the Sheaves," and most strikingly,
a direct quote of the hymn "Watchman, tell us of the night" in
the last movement.
The second comes across as more assured than the first, which may have
occasioned Ives's reservations – groundless, it seems to me. In three
movements -- "Autumn," "In the Barn," and "The
Revival" -- the sonata's first movement begins with an Adagio introduction,
whose main matter echoes the opening of the Cornell Alma Mater, and moves
to an Allegro. In such "Modern" music, it startles me a little
to hear Ives's recourses to the "Wagnerian appoggiatura" as a
thematic ornament. An Ivesian scherzo follows, a frenetic whirl of fiddle
tunes (the annotator, Robert Kirzinger, claims to hear "Turkey in
the Straw"). Muscular, it represents Ives at his best. The third movement,
my favorite, meditates on the hymn tune Nettleton ("Come thou fount
of every blessing"). It reminds me of somebody praying with real
thought behind it.
The third sonata strikes me as the grandest of the set. It uses the same
general structure as the second: slow-fast-slow. Ives himself wrote that
he wanted to express the fervor of nineteenth-century religious revivals,
a fervor that "was often more vociferous than religious." Ives
returns to this cultural movement in work after work. A beautiful modal
passage opens the work. This leads to a long cantabile section that I suspect
Ives based on a hymn, one unknown to me. An agitated section follows. Tying
the two together is the rhythm of a dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth
and an eighth, as in "bringing in" from "Bringing in the
Sheaves." Again, while I can't say actual quotation occurs, I can
point to a similarity of well-known shapes. The movement ends beautifully
and tenderly. The second movement, a "rag" full of fiendish syncopations
and sudden twists, also may quote, this time from a popular tune of the
day. Ives injects a city street energy into the sonata, contradicting him
as a New England pastoralist or mere nostalgist. The finale, which Ives
called a "free fantasia," again uses bits of hymns and revival
songs, at first teasing the ear just to the point of recognition, and
gradually clarifying with longer and longer quotations.
More recordings of the Fourth Sonata, "Children's Day at the Camp
Meeting," have appeared than for any of the three others. Ives
wrote it for a pre-teen nephew and thus toned down his writing somewhat.
far more rhythmically regular than its sibs. Even so, it took musicians
of Szigeti's caliber to perform it, early on. I have no idea whether
his nephew ever took it up and, if so, whether he could get through it.
began working on it in 1906 and finished in 1917. It premiered in the
Forties. Some of this overlaps his work on the Symphony No. 3 "The Camp
second movement bears the title "Children's Day." This is Ives "unbuttoned." One
of the tempo indications in the second movement asks the player for "Allegro
(conslugarocko)," for example. The first movement moves jauntily and
purposefully. Ives wrote that he had in mind the march-hymns children sang
at revival meetings. The second movement begins with a slow swirl of melodic
fragments that again tease your memory for the whole. We move to a brief "raggy" section
and back to the mood of the opening. By the end of the movement the fragments
have coalesced into "Jesus Loves Me." The finale works roughly
the same way, but at a livelier tempo. This time, the fragments transform
into "At the River." Much of the accompanying material comes
from Ives's song setting of the hymn made roughly that same year. An
Ives hit, of sorts.
Of the performances of the sonatas I've heard, I think Hahn and Lisitska
easily the best for the first three. Under them, the music loses its
bizarro quality and becomes poetic and even fun. The only better performance
heard is Szigeti's No. 4 (not currently available) -- sly and sassy.
Hahn and Lisitska communicate not only with the listener, but with each
I don't want to call their ensemble tight, since that implies the force
of will. Instead, they walk the same road, companionably and "naturally." It's
like hearing a really good conversation. The sound is excellent, allowing
both intimacy and clarity.
S.G.S. (December 2011)