Ives Songs; Concord Sonata
Charles Ives to complaining pianist: ‘Is it the composer’s fault that man has only 10 fingers?’ Listening to Pierre-Laurent Aimard play the Concord Sonata it’s not Ives’s dry wit but the assertion that man has only 10 fingers that you begin to question. Nothing Ives wrote was ‘reasonable’ as in playable, singable. Everything was a stretch, a note or chord or counterpoint too far. Technically optimistic, spiritually aspirational. In a sense Aimard is almost too good, the realisation of everything Ives was striving for in this piece. You can almost hear Ives thinking: ‘OK, if that’s possible, let’s go somewhere else…’
Actually, the Concord Sonata goes wherever you want it to go. Its starting point is American literature – Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts and Thoreau – but its substance is in ideas. Ives the transcendentalist: beyond the American dream. An amazing stream of consciousness. Concord is a town in Massachusetts, it’s where American Independence was bloodily born; but it’s also a word for harmony and for Ives there is harmony in extreme diversity. The big moments in the sonata are all born out of flux. Ideas and notes boil over in the second movement, ‘Hawthorne’, but at its heart is the basic conflict between the earthly body and its free spirit. The body resists, the spirit meditates. There are moments here where you’d swear two pianists were involved. You’d also swear that the sorrowful song so fleetingly alluded to by solo viola (Tabea Zimmerman) in the first movement or the remnant of solo flute (Emmanuel Pahud) in the last are figments of your imagination.
Ives’s imagination – his rampant theatricality – should have made for great operas. Instead he wrote songs: capsule dramas laid out not in scenes or acts but moments in time. Susan Graham inhabits 17 such moments – nostalgic (‘Songs my mother taught me’), visionary (‘A sound of distant horn’), cryptic (‘Soliloquy’), brutal (‘1, 2, 3’), expectant (‘Thoreau’) – and the feminine and masculine qualities of her voice, to say nothing of her musical sensibility, easily encompass the ‘expectancy and ecstasy’ promised by the song ‘Memories’ – which appropriately enough recalls her (and others like her) as a little girl ‘sitting in the opera house’. Aimard is again a one-man band. Almost literally so in ‘The Circus Band’. When Graham shouts ‘hear the trombones’, you really do.