31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
J Scott Morrison
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Ives had hopes that his violin sonatas, written between about 1902 and 1915, would become repertory pieces and even made some efforts, unusual for him, to get them into the hands of performers. But this was not to happen, certainly in his lifetime. And in my lifetime of concert-going I've heard only one of them, the shortest, live, the Fourth, 'Children's Day at the Camp Meeting,' played beautifully by Jaime and Ruth Laredo. I also heard the ragtime movement of the Third Sonata played badly by a couple of students.
I have loved these sonatas for many years, first hearing them as a set in a recording from the late 1960s by Rafael Druian, then concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, and John Simms, piano, on Philips LPs; alas they have never, to my knowledge, made it to CD. Then, in the late 1980s Gregory Fulkerson, violin, and Robert Shannon, recorded them for Bridge Records, on two CDs. Now we have this terrific traversal by two talented Texans, Curt Thompson, violin, and Rodney Waters, piano.
Still, these four sonatas represent perhaps the best set of violin and piano sonatas ever written by an American composer. Further, although they are typical Ives in many ways and thus a bit tough for non-initiates with their 'rhapsodic informal ... heterophonic polyphony' [Lou Harrison's term], where it didn't matter to Ives whether his combined tunes matched up harmonically, there are the familiar 'old sweet sounds' of many old-time Protestant hymns and American popular songs. We get bits of 'The Old Oaken Bucket,' 'Bringing in the Sheaves,' 'Work for the Night is Coming,' 'Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching,' 'Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,' 'Beulah Land,' 'The Battle Cry of Freedom,' 'Yes, Jesus Loves Me (The Bible Tells Me So),' 'Tell Me the Old, Old Story,' 'I Need Thee Every Hour,' 'Shall We Gather at the River,' 'Turkey in the Straw,' and others.
Each of the four sonatas contains three movements and in all but two of the twelve movements Ives uses a formal device almost unique to him, a sort of 'variations followed by the theme' arrangement where hints of, variations on, fragments of, contortions of, whispers of, reminiscences of a theme (or themes) are presented and then finally played in more or less unembroidered and conventionally harmonized style (if ever such a thing is ever quite possible with Ives) toward the end of the movement, a kind of 'coming home.' And, in particular, the last movements usually wind up with grand and glorious, richly harmonized and elaborated versions of the theme (or themes), a kind of chorale or hymn effect. For those of us brought up on these old-time hymns and tunes it has an overwhelming emotionally cathartic effect. I find myself moved no matter how often I hear these pieces.
The performances here by violinist Curt Thompson are exemplary. They are musically more subtle, less showy than those of either Fulkerson or Druian. There seems to be a more empathic involvement by Mr Thompson than by either of the earlier violinists. The pianist, Rodney Waters, is simply superb. These sonatas are truly equal partnerships between violinist and pianist and Waters plays with a sensitivity and beautiful tone that, even in the 'con slugarocko' [oh, that Ives!] section of the Fourth Sonata's slow movement is never ugly. Perhaps Ives would have wanted some ugliness here, but this listener, at least, was thrilled that the 'naughty' brio of that section was played so brashly but still eloquently by both artists.
Considering that the Druian/Simms recording is no longer available, and that the Fulkerson/Shannon recording is stretched over two CDs (although totaling just shy of 80 minutes) and sells for full price, this single CD by Thompson/Waters is the one to get. In fact, even if it weren't low-priced that would still be the case.
An enthusiastic recommendation.
I know that Ives maven Bob Zeidler is also preparing a review of this disc and I look forward to it eagerly.
Review by Scott Morrison
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
...and make it my first review of the new year.
This superb Naxos CD of the four Violin Sonatas by Charles Ives might well have been reviewed months ago by me, had it not been for one small matter. Every time I'd set out to listen to the CD, I'd get as far as the Largo cantabile (2nd) movement of the 1st Violin Sonata, only to stop and play it again. And again.
Then, a few times, I actually got as far as the 3rd movement of this work, only to hear the strains of "Watchman, Tell Us of the Night," the Lowell Mason hymn, little known these days but used to such superb effect by Ives, years later, in the opening "Prelude: Maestoso" movement of his culminating masterpiece, the 4th Symphony. There I was, stuck with the same problem: Couldn't go further; simply had to listen again. And again.
Needless to say, I finally managed to solve the problem. But it took both a conscious effort to listen to the sonatas in reverse order AND a New Year's resolution as well.
There is little that I can add to the two excellent previous reviews. Scott Morrison and Robin Friedman pretty much touched all the bases: Ives's use of "cumulative form" (a developmental "working toward a summing up" of each movement, by introducing thematic fragments which, only by the end of the movement, come together to present the full theme), his inveterate borrowing of vernacular and hymnic materials, and the total parity between the two instrumentalists. (Probably never before, and never since, have such sonatas been written where the piano part is so equally matched, both thematically and technically, to the violin part. Calling these works "violin sonatas" does an injustice to the violinist's equal partner!)
Ives was not, himself, a violinist, although his father, George Edward Ives, had been a pretty good fiddler, and I'm sure that there's more than a fair bit of sentimental tribute by Charlie to George in these works. What Ives certainly did, in these sonatas, was to "introduce a distinctly American style of violin playing [...], namely paraphrases of fiddle music" and [he] "associated the violin with spiritual exaltation and with hymn singing." (These quotations are the words of Nancy Mandel, violinist and wife and co-collaborator with Alan Mandel in performing Ives's chamber works, written nearly three decades ago for an Ives centennial symposium, "On Performing the Violin Sonatas." They're certainly better than any words I could think up for this review occasion.)
Every bit of this stylistic description by Nancy Mandel comes through in these works: Scattered throughout the total of twelve movements spread over the four sonatas, one will in fact hear idiomatic fiddling - including ragtime and country and barn dances - and spiritually exalted hymnic phrasing. And, though the four works cover more than a decade of Ives's composing career, there is not an expected sense that the later works are in any way more complex than the earlier ones; almost the exact opposite occurs, in which the later two sonatas are considerably more accessible than the two earlier ones: Ives, in his "Memos," describes the later two works as "...a kind of slump backward."
While I'm not necessarily buying into Ives's self-criticism, his observation perhaps in part explains why it is that the 1st Sonata grabs me in the gut the way that it does. The work looks back to the classical tradition, with its Lisztian piano writing in the Largo cantabile movement, at the same time that it looks forward in this movement, with some eerily gorgeous violin double-stop writing that sounds to these ears as if Ives is writing in true quarter tones. This Largo cantabile movement is simply magic. And then comes the cumulative-form thematic development toward "Watchman..." in the concluding movement: spiritual exaltation indeed! Is it any wonder that I had difficulty moving past this sonata, and on to the others?
Like Scott Morrison, I remember the much earlier Rafael Druian/John Simms LPs. Unfortunately, unlike Scott, I just barely remember them. And I'm unfamiliar with the Gregory Fulkerson/Robert Shannon CDs. So, at the same time that I am rediscovering (and loving) the sonatas, I am hearing Curt Thompson and Rodney Waters for the first time.
These young instrumentalists are simply superb. Thompson gets into the dance-like episodes with true "fiddling" style, and simply soars in the hymnic passages. Waters handles the very difficult piano part with aplomb, and is every bit the equal partner to Thompson (as he needs to be, given how Ives wrote the virtuosic piano parts). I may or may not be missing anything by not having either the Druian/Simms LPs or the Fulkerson/Shannon CDs. But Naxos - once again, as it has demonstrated in the past with its Ives contributions to its "American Classics" series - need not apologize to anyone for these performances. Moreover, unlike Fulkerson/Shannon on the full-price Bridge label, where the sonatas are spread too generously over two CDs, here they fit without a problem onto a single budget CD.
I have a collection of scores in my library, admittedly small and mostly orchestral, covering those works near and dear to me. My SECOND resolution of the New Year is to track down the score for at least the 1st Violin Sonata (if only to see how Ives wrote the violin part for the Largo cantabile movement, particularly for the quarter-tone double stops), and preferably the scores for all four. This is not only "canonical Ives"; these sonatas are among the finest 20th century works in the genre.
And, looking back over all of 2003, I think that the single classical work that received the most playing time by me was this Ives 1st Violin Sonata. What a supremely sublime piece of music it is! It's strange to find myself using this as an "excuse" for such a long delay in writing this review. But there you have it.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Charles Ives (1874 -1954) was an original American composer. His work anticipated both the creation of a distintly American style of art music, incorporation elements of gospel, popular song,jazz, and ragtime and also the creation of what became 20th century avant garde music with its use of dissonance, atonality, and polyrhythm. Ives's reputation as an American master of art music has grown with the years.
In this disc, Naxos follows-up its two earlier recordings of Ives that feature his orchestral music, the second and third symphonies. The focus here is on Ives's chamber music: the four sonatas for violin and piano. The album features two young musicians, violinist Carl Thompson, of Fort Worth, Texas, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the four Ives violin sonatas and pianist Rodney Waters of Lubbock, Texas.
Ives composed his violin sonatas in the years between 1902 and 1916. Each sonata is in three movements and each draws upon works Ives had prepared when young. Each work incorporates many folk and gospel themes. They are full of nostalgia for the small-town, rapidly disappearing turn-of-the-century America in which Ives grew up. The title's of the movements of the second sonata ("Autumn", "In the Barn" and "The Revival" are explicitly programmatic in character while the Fourth Sonata is titled "Children's Day at the Camp Meeting." The folk themes in the sonatas are skillfully disguised and fragmented throughout the works until they appear in full voice generally at the end of each sonata.
The roots of these works in American song have long been noted. But in listening to the music, I was struck by how much more there is to these pieces. I heard a strong strain of late 19th century romanticism in these works with long rhapsodic lyrical melodies. The first and third sonatas, in particular open with slow movements that to me have an improvisatory, romantic character.
I also was struck by the interplay between the violin and the piano. Each instrument recieves long, showy lines in these works. But to me Ives heart was closer to the piano. (Ives was an accomplished performer on both the piano and organ.) The piano has long, difficult extended solo passages in these sonatas. Some of the passages are long, flowing and lyrical while others are full of heavy chords. Even in the passages in which the violin is predominant, the piano seldom takes the role of a mere accompanist. The piano develops its own themes seeming in competition with the themes in the violin.
There is substantial dissonance and experimentation in this music and much of the sheer joy of composition. These are not easy works and require repeated hearings. Although each work has something of its own character, I think they are best heard in sequence as part of the group of four as they are presented here.
Many people are only beginning to discover the richness of American art music. The Naxos "American Classics" series is performing a great service in making this music available. Listeners who want to explore the seriousness of American efforts in art music cannot do better than to begin with Charles Ives. This album, together with the two albums of Ives's orchestral music on Naxos, will give a good introductory picture of this composer.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Charles Ives - Violin Sonatas
I undertake this review with some trepidation, as all of the previous reviews are quite thorough and thoughtful, and I'm not sure how much I have to add. But two of the other reviewers want me to chime in as well...so here it goes.
Ives is without a doubt the quintessential American composer. Though the composer was highly trained, there exists an air of the autodidact about him, perhaps influenced by his famously eccentric and experimental father George. Ives received a fairly traditional education with Horatio Parker at Yale, but even there he was unable to keep his experimental tendencies in check. (When asked to write a graduation fugue, Ives wrote it in four keys!) However, as experimental as Ives gets, he is still grounded in the American musical tradition as exemplified by Parker and his kind. All one has to do is study the harmonic language of these Violin Sonatas to see this.
The Violin Sonatas span the years 1904 to 1916, but are perhaps the most consistent musical statements in his output. The language is fairly conservative for Ives, though not as conservative as the first two symphonies. You do not find the wild collages of the Fourth Symphony or the biting dissonances of the Concord Sonata in this set. Rather, these are fascinating works that are a typical Ivesian crazy quilt of hymn tunes, popular melody, almost parlor-song harmony, and impressionistic use of dissonances that is highly beguiling and in the case of some of the slow movements, deeply moving.
Each of the four sonatas has a fairly traditional three-movement structure. Sonatas 1 and 4 are fast-slow-fast sonatas while the middle two sonatas surround a fast movement with two more contemplative movements. The materials of all the sonatas are fairly tonal. The real radical nature of these works is in the structure of the movements themselves. As has been said before, Ives uses an original procedure of "cumulative form". Snippets of melody weave in and out of the texture without making a full blown thematic statement. These melodic snippets sound vaguely familiar but are manipulated enough so that they aren't totally recognizable until the end of the movement, when the source theme is stated, often very simply. The effect is climatic and deeply moving and greatly enhanced if you know the source material. For instance, the second movement of the 4th sonata (Children's Day at the Camp Meeting) weaves around a melody that has a hint of nostalgia to it. At the end it finally coalesces into the familiar children's hymn Jesus Loves Me. The effect is more moving than I ever believed that sappy hymn could be.
Shockingly, these beautiful sonatas inspired venom among those to first listen and perform them. (After a musician berated Ives over the first sonata, he uttered his famous self-question, "Are my ears on wrong?"...the inspiration, incidentally, for my own Amazon nickname...weird ears.) These sonatas are wonderfully nostalgic works. Listening to them gives you the feeling of catching a glimpse of a lost world, Victorian America with its parlor songs, camp meetings, and vigorous popular musical culture. Listening to the Ives Sonatas is like hearing that world again, but through the prism of memory and dream. The themes waft in and out, not in the organic way that a typically Germanic sonata would, but rather in a freely associative manner. So the way to appreciate these works is to follow the form in much the same way, letting your attention flow from moment to moment until Ives brings it all together in his cumulative themes. It also helps if you have some familiarity with turn of the century Protestant hymnody, as almost all these works are based on camp meeting hymns such as Watchman Tell Us of the Night, Land of Rest, and Beulah Land. Also, a bit of familiarity with fiddle tunes and 19th century popular tunes is also helpful. However, even without this knowledge these are magical and very powerful works and repay repeated listening. They are also perhaps the best place to begin for Ives novices. They have a truly Ivesian feeling without the forbidding dissonances of some of his thornier works.
Performances on this CD are really excellent. Curt Thompson is a promising young violinist with a full, pleasing tone, and a handle on the distinctively American sound these sonatas need, and he is expertly supported by Rodney Waters. Naxos is to be credited for bringing these works out as part of their Ives cycle. They were long overdue for a complete recording.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
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Format: Audio CD
Sometimes comparing a composer's works is like comparing apples and oranges. A big orchestral work is a very different kind of fruit than a small chamber piece. So when a composer returns several times to the same medium, it makes it easier to get an assessment of the composer's thought process and personality. In the case of Charles Ives, these four sonatas for violin and piano offer that kind of unique possibility to observe the composer's strategy at work. Ives stands unique among composers of his generation for his attempt to meld high art goals with vernacular music. Not *folk* music, mind you, but vernacular music: marching band tunes, popular ditties like "Turkey in the Straw," Stephen Foster songs, and especially the rich realm of Protestant hymnody. Ives mixes these vernacular sources together and distills a potent moonshine all his own from the mash. I've loved these four pieces for over 30 years, ever since Paul Zukovsky and Gilbert Kalish recorded them for Nonesuch around the Ives Centennial in 1974. The performances here are every bit as fine as the Zukovsky/Kalish set, and all on one disc at a bargain price! If you find the Ives orchestral works loud and messy, and can't quite warm up to the Concord Sonata (keep trying: it's worth the effort), you may find that these Violin Sonatas will help you understand what the fuss is all about: they just could be the finest works the composer wrote.