Ives: Piano Sonata No. 2 (Concord); The Celestial Railroad; Varied Air and Variations; Transcriptions from Emerson No. 1

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Ives
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Piano Sonata No. 2 (Concord); The Celestial Railroad; Varied Air and Variations; Transcriptions from Emerson No. 1
PERFORMER: Steven Mayer (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 8.559127
Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata is one of those pieces that rarely get downright bad performances. Pianists lacking the technique and stamina to negotiate its ferocious demands, or the intellect and patience to disentangle its notational complexities and shape its sprawling forms, normally just leave it alone. Steven Mayer’s performance is certainly not a bad one: he has all the requisite technique and intellect, and he’s especially successful in the work’s oases of quiet simplicity. It may not be his fault that the piano sound lacks depth, making stretches of sustained forte and above too uniform, and tiring to the ear. And it’s really his bad luck that this Naxos American Classics issue follows so hard on the heels of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recent recording (reviewed June), which is of unmatchable vividness and panache. But that’s by no means to write off this disc. Its programme is completed imaginatively by three pieces written in the Twenties, in the wake of the publication of the Sonata. The Varied Air and Variations (or ‘Very Darin’ Variations’?) parodies audience responses to modern music: dissonant counterpoint is met with affronted whimpers, a more euphonious variation with thunderous C major approval. The Celestial Railroad reworks the second movement of the Sonata, ‘Hawthorne’, to match one of Hawthorne’s short stories; the ‘Emerson’ Transcription takes the first movement’s material in a different direction. Also in the newcomer’s favour are its price and wide availability, which should win fresh converts to an endlessly fascinating composer and one of his most remarkable works. Anthony Burton

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