Kirkpatrick Rumbles Through the “Concord” Sonata

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IVES: Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord” / John Kirkpatrick, pianist / IVES: Excerpts from the “Concord” Sonata / Charles Ives, pianist / Sony Classical 886444044349

Sometimes we reviewers can’t always get what we want to review, and in this case it was particularly frustrating because it was a new recording of Ives’ “Concord” Sonata by a pianist I hadn’t heard before, Thomas Hell (on Piano Classics). Alas, no download tracks or streaming was available, so just for the heck of it I looked up what the Naxos Music Library had, and lo and behold, there was a legendary recording I knew about, heard once, but never owned, the 1968 stereo remake of the piece by John Kirkpatrick. This CD was issued in 2013.

The back story of this recording is that Kirkpatrick was a friend of Ives’, admired his music, and on April 9, 1945 made the first recording of this long and thorny work for Columbia that was considered so unpalatable that it wasn’t issued for three years (you can hear it on YouTube here). This remake got a lot of publicity when it first came out on LP, but despite its historical significance and musical value it really didn’t last very long in the catalog. The “Concord” Sonata isn’t exactly Beethoven’s “Moonlight” or “Pathétique,” so it simply stopped selling.

My first exposure to it, at about age 19, was one of puzzlement. Much of the music just sounded noisy and discordant to me; I couldn’t make much sense of it, and in fact it wasn’t until I heard Donna Coleman’s terrific version (listed in my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music) that I really came to appreciate its qualities. Relistening to it now, after nearly a half century, I recognize that it wasn’t just the music itself that put me off. It was Kirkpatrick’s rough-and-tumble, no-holds-barred playing. Hearing it with, shall we say, new and improved ears, what I hear is a pianist whose view of the music was that of a thunderous virtuoso in the Vladimir Horowitz mold, but also one who felt the need to emphasize the work’s cragginess to the sacrifice (many times) of legato phrasing.

The question then arises: Is this the right way to play it? Or even a valid way? The answer, I think, comes in the excerpts from the sonata—included on this disc—played by Ives himself. By his own admission, Ives wasn’t a great pianist and could just barely get through what he wrote, so one must take his rough-and-tumble performances with a grain of salt, but since that is the way he played the music himself, and Kirkpatrick knew this and heard him do it in person, one must credit the later pianist with giving us a historically authentic reading.

kirkpatrickIn its simplest terms, this performance is wild and woolly. In addition to being almost anti-pianistic (quite a different thing from anti-virtuosic…Kirkpatrick was most certainly a great virtuoso) in its clangorous attacks and only occasional moments of tenderness and/or legato, it has the feel of a headlong rush of notes as they streamed through the composer’s head at the moment of creation. A perfect example is the way the march tune (bitonal, of course!) suddenly comes out of nowhere in the midst of the “Hawthorne” movement. Many pianists, Coleman included, take pains to make it sound organic with what came before and what comes after, but Kirkpatrick makes no such concessions. It just suddenly pops up out of nowhere, almost unrelated to the material that precedes it or follows it, as if the marching band just popped into his head the way it must have popped into Ives’.

Which then leads us to an even bigger question: Is this really a piano sonata? This is certainly the crux of the argument, and for nearly a century no one has really answered this satisfactorily, not even Ives himself. It’s more like four big tone poems with certain features in common. But is is most certainly a strange and wonderful piece that attacks the listener like a freight train run amok. I have no idea what kind of piano Kirkpatrick played this on, but whatever it was, it had a hard tone, almost like an upright rather than a grand piano. One commentator who remembers the original LP a lot better than I do made the comment that the digital remastering has added some “body” to the piano tone. If that is indeed true, the LP must have sounded like Knuckles O’Toole playing ragtime on a tack piano. Regardless of your aesthetic viewpoint, however, there is no question but that this is a score that launched not hundreds but probably thousands of American piano works in the decades since. Yes, even Frederick Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated is a spiritual descendant of the “Concord” sonata. As the last notes of “Thoreau” fade into nothingness, ending the sonata on an unresolved mood, we feel as if we have been through something momentous.

Playing the music in this way will not be to everyone’s taste, certainly not nowadays when the purpose of most classical musicians seems to be to streamline music, “straighten out” its bumps and kinks, making it sound smoother and less abrasive than anything you’ve ever heard in the past. But you cannot get around the fact that, like it or hate it, this is the way the composer wanted it to sound. So take that, you big Historically-Informed Performance stiffs!

Our connection of Kirkpatrick’s interpretation with the original conception is cemented, for me, by the inclusion of all of Charles Ives’ own recordings of excerpts from and improvisations on this sonata. First come two excerpts from “Emerson,” the end of the exposition and most of the recapitulation; then a fragment from “Hawthorne” (thirteen seconds!); the complete “Alcotts” movement; and two more bits from “Emerson,” labeled as transcriptions “with interpolated improvisations.” These were not commercial recordings, but private acetates made for Ives’ own reference, so the sound quality is scarcely state-of-the-art even for the early 1930s. Surface noise and crackle are left in to give you that visceral “you-were-there” feeling as you listen. (The “Hawthorne” fragment is the noisiest, and also has some bad pitch problems.) Occasionally Ives lets out a grunt or a groan as he pushes his way through the music. If anything, his own performances are even more muscular and thunderous than Kirkpatrick’s, and his piano just as “clangy.” He, too, eschews legato phrasing in his playing, and he attacks the keyboard like a tiger. Finesse is not his strong suit, but these recordings—both Ives’ and Kirkpatrick’s—are proof positive that finesse was not what the composer wanted in his music.

All in all, then, a fascinating glimpse into the mind of Ives and a stunning, almost shocking, realization of his greatest piano work, with verification from the composer himself that this was indeed how he wanted it to go. If you enjoy Ives, this release is a must for your collection.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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