GORDON BINKERD: Essays for Piano IV, V, VI; CHARLES IVES: Second Piano Sonata “Concord Mass., 1840–1860” – Matthew Perry, p. – Bridge

by | Sep 12, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

GORDON BINKERD: Essays for Piano IV, V, VI;  CHARLES IVES: Second Piano Sonata Concord Mass., 1840–1860”  (John Kirkpatrick, final edition) – Matthew Perry, p. – Bridge BRIDGE9390, 63:22 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Any recording with two composers’ works paired causes me to ask why? Why these composers? Why these works? The answers about this recording are more interesting to me since I know something of one composer (Ives) and nothing of the other (Binkerd). There are several similarities between the two men: both are formally schooled American composers, born roughly a century ago, and both wrote some of their most memorable music for the piano.

The differences, however, are what make this album interesting. Gordon Binkerd (1916 – 2003) was born on an Indian Reservation in Nebraska, to a father who was with the telephone company. The family moved often, mostly within the prairie states, so his first formal musical education was at Dakota Wesleyan University. His Masters degrees from Eastman and Harvard were separated by a stretch in the U.S. Navy during WWII. Binkerd settled into a life of teaching (at University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign) and composing. He won a number of commissions and a Guggenheim Fellowship(1959). He wrote four piano sonatas, the first in 1955 and the rest from 1981 to 1983. But the origin of the selections on this recording are in a set of songs he wrote in the 1910s to texts by Jean Garrigue, an American poet (IV titled “Lightly, like Music running”), and Thomas Hardy (V “She, to Him” and VI “Shut out that Moon”). The titles capture the character of the pieces, and of Binkerd’s credo that  “music, to me, is beauty and excitement, combined with significance”

Unlike Binkerd, who as a music teacher was mindful of the need to compose repertoire for those developing their craft, Charles Ives (1874 – 1954) wrote music of increasing inaccessibility during his truncated composing years. His father was a band leader during and after the Civil War, and a tremendous influence on Charles.  Born and raised in Connecticut, he was a piano and organ prodigy, holding down a paid position as a church organist in his mid-teens. He attended Yale and had a marvelous time there, playing baseball and varsity football, participating in campus politics, and obtaining an advanced degree in composition. But he needed full-time employment, and so joined an insurance company in 1899.

Ives’ aptitude for business was so strong that he established his own insurance agency in 1907 and was tremendously successful. He pioneered several concepts that exist today including “estate planning”. His business peers were surprised to learn that he composed and performed music. But he did so, part-time and continuously, until 1927.  His wife Harmony tells of Charles coming downstairs one morning early that year, with tears in his eyes. He said “Nothing sounds right” and he composed no more.

Ives leaves a wide variety of compositions – four symphonies and seven sets of orchestral works, many with titles and themes from his beloved New England, and compositions for band, organ, chamber ensemble, choir and solo voice. His Third Symphony The Camp Meeting won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for Music, but Ives gave the prize money away, saying “Prizes are for boys, and I’m all grown up”.

For piano he wrote a large number of Studies, and two Piano Sonatas, the second of which is on this recording. The structure is traditional, with four movements, but the titles evoke spirits of four key figures in the Transcendentalist Movement, flourishing in the Concord, Mass. area in the mid-1800”s. They are titled: I Emerson, II Hawthorne,  III The Alcotts, and IV Thoreau.

Ives was not easy, nor very clear, in his piano writing. He told John Kirkpatrick, the pianist who gave the first public performance of Ives’ Second Sonata to “do whatever seems natural or best to you, though not necessarily the same way each time”. He also stretched beyond the limits of contemporary piano practice by writing a passage in the second movement of this sonata that was to be played “using the palm of the hand or the clenched fist” and another to be played “by using a strip of board 14¾“ long and heavy enough to press the keys down without striking”. This is all in keeping with Ives’ perverse relationship with the piano: he wrote “Why must the scarecrow of the keyboard – the tyrant in terms of the mechanism …stare into every measure? Is it the composer’s fault that man has only ten fingers?”.

John Kirkpatrick not only first performed this sonata, but also completed the definitive editing, which Martin Perry uses in this recording. Many of Ives’ thick dissonances are made more palatable. The recording was made in March 2011 at Bowdoin College, and recorded, edited, mastered and produced by Bob Ludwig. The piano playing and sound quality are of the highest order, as are the accompanying notes by Drew Massey.

Paired with a more accessible piece by Gordon Binkerd, the Ives Second Sonata remains a demanding work, but stands at the pinnacle of American piano composition.

—Paul Kennedy

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