What first catches my attention when, out of the blue and unsolicited, I open a mailer that holds a cd from NEUMA RECORDS is purely visual and tactile. The attractiveness of the packaging rests on its no-nonsense, immensely practical design. NEUMA’s factotum Philip Blackburn is the gifted designer. One removes the shrink-wrap cellophane, and the CD holder opens in a three-part manner that allows the disc and the liner notes to freely stand.
The NEUMA cd that features the music of Charles Ives and Marion Bauer features a tiny double, full color image of a man (Ives himself?) approaching a little bridge. The color of the wrapping of the CD is an attractive yellow, the disc is red. This looks like it will be fun listening.
Then I read the liner notes by pianist Phillip Bush. Written in clear, unencumbered English, I learn from its author much that I did not know about Charles Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860.” I read about Marion Bauer (1862-1955), a contemporary of Ives. I knew nothing about her until now.
All this takes place before I have put the disc on the player, which for me is very much what needs to happen before I start to listen. In case you did not know, NEUMA RECORDS, by the way is in their casual words, “A label for experimental classics, today’s musings, and tomorrow’s possibilities, since 1988.”
First conceived in 1904 and finally published in 1920, the Concord Piano Sonata has been re-imagined by every pianist who has ever played it, encouraged by Ives himself during the composer’s lifetime and later posthumously to approach it fearlessly and freely.
Ives wrote: “I find that I do not play or feel like playing this music even now in the same way each time… Some of the passages now played have not been written out, and I do not know as I ever shall write them out as it may take away the daily pleasure of playing this music and seeing it grow and feeling that it is not finished and the hope that it never will be – I may always have the pleasure of not finishing it.”
The four movements are a kind of homage to five New Englanders: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott and daughter Louisa May Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau. In music now dissonant and restless, now playful and lyric, occasionally evocative here of Beethoven, there of Debussy, and now and then reminiscent of American ditties, Charles Ives provides less of a score and more of a general battle plan, lacking bar lines among many of the specifics that would perhaps make this work easier to play, the Concord is a daunting musical minefield not meant for the faint of heart.
A contemporary of Ives and a student of Nadia Boulanger who went on to have a distinguished career as an educator, Marion Bauer, much like Amy Beach and Ruth Crawford-Seeger, never achieved the recognition that some of her late 19th century, early 20th century male contemporaries did in her time – just think of Charles Griffes, or George Chadwick, or Edward MacDowell, or John Knowles Paine, or Horatio Parker.
Pianist Phillip Bush rises to the challenge in a fierce and noble performance that, without a hint of reverence, explores all the intricacies of Ives’ chameleonic work. Bush daring, take-no-prisoners take on Ives’ 48-minute sonata is wide-ranging, technically faultless, and interpretatively eloquent. Unusually for a sonata for piano, an out of nowhere flute makes a brief appearance in the last movement, eloquently played by Jennifer Parker-Harley.
Bush is also at home in the music of the charming Six Preludes for Piano of Marion Bauer, the unjustly neglected female composer, whose music, even by today’s politically correct standards, remains largely unknown and unperformed.
Adding to the delight assets of this invaluable recording, the recording mastery of Jeff Francis and Erdem Helvacioglu go a long way to make the entire listening experience a memorable one.
Rafael de Acha © 2023
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