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 similar way.

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 a program, either stated, as in the "Concord" Sonata or The Unanswered Question, 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 them together.

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. It is 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. Ives 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 Meeting," whose 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 I've heard is Szigeti's No. 4 (not currently available) -- sly and sassy. Hahn and Lisitska communicate not only with the listener, but with each other. 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)