American Sonatas for Violin and Piano = IVES: Sonata No. 2; BOLCOM: Sonata No. 2; CORIGLIANO: Sonata – Ching-Yi Lin, violin /Zachary Lopes, piano – MSR Classics MS 1553, 54:07, ****:
Three diverse American violin sonatas that will please conservative modernists.
In his 1958 “Young People’s Concerts” entitled, “What is American Music?” Leonard Bernstein answered the question by naming the diversity of the American musical personality as the primary element that defines our music. Each of the three composers represented in this cross section of 20th century American violin and piano sonatas represent that diversity—albeit conservative—that makes American music distinct.
Charles Ives (1874-1954) became an independent Yankee individualist who composed music that was a combination of radical musical techniques (use of cross rhythms and polytonality and many layered textures) and the well-known music and sounds that he heard growing up in New England. His music could vacillate between the sublime and ridiculous. It could lead to spiritual redemption or a good laugh. Often it sounds familiar and new at the same time. Ives’ music is clearly American. After all, what’s more American than a cantankerous individualist who experiments with music, but becomes a millionaire selling insurance?
Ives never had to worry about public acceptance of his music, but the Second Violin Sonata has enough tunes from his native New England that might have made it popular in its own day. Autumn quotes Ives’ song of the same name and is reverential ode to that beautiful season. The second movement In the Barn, is a square dance full of old fiddle tunes, including the Civil war song, “The Battle Cry of Freedom” and “Turkey in the Straw.” The Revival is a setting of an early American hymn tune, “Nettleton” that captures the growing intensity of a revival camp meeting. This sonata is a good place to experience the conservative side of Charles Ives.
William Bolcom’s contribution to American music as a composer and pianist is to lessen the boundaries between art music and popular music. Bolcom and his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, have expanded the classical music repertoire by recording more than two dozen albums, specializing in showtunes, parlour and popular songs from the late 19th and early 20th century. As a composer, Bolcom won the Pulitizer Prize for music in 1988 for 12 New Etudes for Piano. He has penned nine symphonies, four operas, twelve string quartets, a number of piano rags and four violin sonatas. The Second Violin Sonata was inspired by playing with jazz violinist Joe Venuti in 1978 at a pub in New York. Bolcom incorporates many of Venuti’s “stylistic tricks, double-stop slides and alternate left and right-handed pizzicato.” The soft, bluesy first movement clashes with a dissonant, rather frenetic second movement. A beautifully melodic “Adagio” is followed by an homage to Venuti, who died suddenly before the work was finished. It’s filled with affecting, joyous and angry outbursts, a final tribute to Venuti’s persona and music.
Although John Corigliano’s contribution to America’s diversity was to bypass the wave of atonality that swept through America’s universities in the mid-twentieth century and write expressive music when it was frowned upon. Nor did he travel the circuitous and severe path of the minimalists to arrive at “the evocative power of musical memory.” Corigliano wrote his Sonata for Violin and Piano in1962-3, a few years after his graduation from Columbia University. He described it as “a tense, histrionic outgrowth of the ‘clean’ American sound of Barber, Copland, Harris and Schuman.” Not surprisingly, it won the composition prize at the 1964 Spoleto Festival, where the judges included Walter Piston, Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti. Although his father, concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, disparaged his son’s sonata, he later indicated his acceptance by editing it. The thematic material in this work is always memorable, but shifting meters and surprising dynamic modulations make it continually interesting. The simple and memorable “Andantino” theme isn’t easily forgotten. A contemplative “Lento” is followed by an “Allegro” that makes use of glissandi, sudden stops, and an irrepressibly breathless finale that is full of good spirits.
Volinist Ching-Yi Lin’s tone is on the thin side at times, but otherwise captures the musical essence of these American classics. She’s especially effective in the more emotional slow movements. She captures the ‘helter-skelter’ characteristic of the last movement better than Joshua Bell, whose virtuosity calls attention to himself rather than the music. This is an excellent introduction to these estimable works.