Charles Ives: Sonatas for Violin and Piano (ECM New Series 1605)


Charles Ives
Sonatas for Violin and Piano

Hansheinz Schneeberger violin
Daniel Cholette piano
Recorded December 1995 at Tonstudio van Geest, Sandhausen
Engineer: Teije van Geest
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The violin sonatas of Charles Ives were famously considered unplayable at the time of their composition (1903-1916). This is about as far my knowledge about their background reaches, for Ives represents a sore gap in my listening that was only recently salved by violinist Hansheinz Schneeberger and pianist Daniel Cholette, who bring 20 years of experience with the sonatas into the studio for what I imagine will be a reference recording for years to come. In this instance I feel fortunate in my ignorance, for it allows me to approach this music with fresh ears and an open mind. Having listened only a few times thus far, I clearly have much to learn and discover.

Perhaps akin to its French counterparts, the First Violin Sonata to my ears feels connected to the intersection of body and landscape, of song and action. It youthfully skirts the line between outright offense and justifiable play (and is that Bartók I hear creeping in through the exuberant double stops?). The second movement, an Allegro, is a pastiche of soaring melodies and grinding moments of impasse, while the final movement is like some anthemic dream turned in on itself. Such twisted charm seems part and parcel of the Ivesian experience, and backgrounds the “Autumn” movement of the Second Violin Sonata with tortured intimations in a magisterial wash of melody. These underlying struggles haunt with such regularity that whenever energies do pick up they seem like desperate attempts to break free from something dark and adhesive. In much the same way, “In The Barn” is at once exuberant and tempered by internal conflict, while “The Revival”—which opens with what I can only describe as a morose version of “Jingle Bells”—fascinatingly overlaps traditions and distortions with a jeweler’s eye. The Third Violin Sonata is the most consistent of the four. Its chain of verses moves through a mosaic of narratives, but always with a sense of forward motion and thematic drive. From the aggressive to the pastoral, it handles its moods with conviction. Subtitled “Children’s Day At The Camp Meeting,” the Fourth Violin Sonata opens with a terse Allegro and a cascading second movement, the latter being for me the masterpiece of the collection. Lullabies give way here to lilting rhythms and jolting cutoffs, inviting us to fill in the gaps with our own experiences and understandings.

Although these sonatas don’t make for the most “pleasant” listening, one can hardly fault them for their honesty. Ives’s was an uncompromising approach to style, which is to say he eschewed it. Instead, he seemed equally bound to a highly idiosyncratic aesthetic and to the whim of the moment. Schneeberger and Cholette bring out that very tension and walk the edge of predetermination and spontaneity with practiced intimacy. Not unlike the early compositions of John Cage, Ives’s music commits to its own unfolding even as it thrives on the mystery of impossible form(ation).

Alternate cover

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