Barber; Ives Piano Sonatas
This superb recital of two sharply, indeed mischievously, opposed American sonatas follows Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s celebrated Warner Classics disc of the Ives and also precedes Steven Mayer’s Naxos version. It also replaces Hamelin’s own 1989 recording of the Concord Sonata which was coupled with Maurice Wright’s 1982 Sonata.
Ives’s transcendentalism, his pioneering spirit, could hardly provide a greater contrast to Barber’s compact and conservative Sonata. By his own confession, Ives wrote ‘not a nice sonata for a nice piano player’, whereas Barber was inspired by Horowitz’s demonic pianism. Ives wanted to challenge and go beyond his instrument; Barber composed with its specific qualities in mind. And as Jed Distler tells us in his sparkling booklet-notes, Barber loathed Ives: a clash of opposites, of a revolutionary versus a neo-romantic.
Hamelin’s performance of the Concord Sonata is in the truest sense transcendental, his facility allowing him a cool poetry and lyricism inaccessible to other, more strenuously employed pianists. His Barber, arguably the most agile on record, is much less charged or intense than Horowitz’s legendary recording. But if there are moments when, to paraphrase Denis Matthews, his performance is a bit like arriving at the summit of Mt Everest by helicopter, this is nonetheless an enthralling reading.
As for the Ives, the major offering here, I would never want to be without Aimard’s, Mayer’s or Hamelin’s discs. All three pianists subdue their awe-inspiring command to a purely musical end; all three are, in their different ways, intrepid and thrilling explorers.
Hyperion’s sound is immaculate and Hamelin’s disc is a valuable addition to his unique, tirelessly evolving discography.