IVES: Concord Sonata (Sonata No. 2 for Piano)—NIELSEN: Three Pieces—ENESCU: Carillon Nocturne—SCHOENBERG: Two Pieces, Op.33—Andrew Rangell, piano. Steinway and Sons 30100, 69:08, ****:
This is a disc of early 20th century piano music performed by the idiosyncratic American pianist Andrew Rangell. The centerpiece is Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, “whose monumental cussedness, tenderness and imaginative daring epitomize the character and gifts of its Yankee creator …” as the pianist describes it. Surrounding Ives are piano pieces by Carl Nielsen, Arnold Schoenberg and Romanian violinist and pianist George Enescu. Add Steinway’s direct, realistic piano sound and the result is a stimulating pianistic journey.
If ever there was a composer whose life and music represents American diversity, it’s Charles Ives (1874-1954). He was raised in Danbury, Connecticut by his father George, who was a band master for the Union Army in the Civil War. He taught his son the classics, but the young Ives absorbed and loved the diverse music of his New England environment—band marches, church hymn tunes, barn dance fiddling, popular ditties, patriotic melodies and ragtime. Add to this the composer’s predilection for experimentation (new harmonies, polyphony, quirky rhythms, quarter tone intervals, etc.) and the result is a new musical language all his own. Ives learned the compositional basics at Yale University, but when he graduated in 1898, he decided against a career in music and became a partner in the largest insurance agency in America. That freed him to follow an experimental compositional path without worrying about the reaction to his difficult to perform music. Ives became a successful businessman during the day and a composer at night.
In the preface to the Concord Sonata, Ives said, “the whole is an attempt to present [one person’s] impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., of over a half century ago. This is undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne.” Although transcendentalism proposed that individual intuitions rather than religious beliefs transcend all nature and humanity, the “Concord” sonata was about music, and an incredibly eccentric vision for its time.
Rhythm is so irregular that it was written without bar lines. In the original version for piano, a wooden mallet smashing down on keys produces tone clusters in “Hawthorne.” Yet Beethoven’s four note opening of the Fifth Symphony appears regularly, as does “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” In the original version for piano, a solo viola can invade “Emerson” and a flute in “Thoreau.” In this performance Rangell shows his own individuality by playing the optional viola part in “Emerson” on the piano and using his own forearm to create the tone clusters in “Hawthorne.” Even more unique, Rangell replaces the flute solo in “Thoreau” with whistling.
As I listened I saw Ives himself whistling and smiling. There was something organic about the melody emerging from the pianist and Rangell is a good whistler. He calls the Ives “a romantic sonata” and his performance is dramatic, contemplative, nostalgic and humorous. It’s much less radical now as we venture into the 21st century.
You would never recognize Carl Nielsen’s last piano work, Three Pieces, Op. 59 from his symphonies. Yet they are a good pairing with the Ives, as they are “searching, and disruptive” as Rangell describes them. Yet the Adagio is contemplative and probing. George Enescu’ Carillon Nocturne from the Suite No. 3 is an attractive reverie on the “echoing sounds of monastery bells.” Rangell compares it to an evocation of time and place, like Ives’ evocation of Thoreau. Schoenberg’s Op. 33a and Op. 33b, his last pieces for solo piano, are calmer than his more serious twelve-tone compositions, even amusing in places. But there’s enough events to remind the listener of Ives. The selection of these short pieces prepare the listener for the quixotic variety of the monumental Ives’s sonata.
Andrew Rangell’s performance of these early 20th century works (the Ives is a masterpiece) captures the essence of their romantic yet revolutionary roots.