The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Hilary Hahn’s new recording of the complete violin sonatas by Charles Ives sets a new standard and deserves to win a Grammy and other awards.

November 18, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

A week from today, the Friday after Thanksgiving, is the traditional kickoff to the holiday shopping season with Black Friday followed by Local Saturday and Cyber Monday -– even though we all know the frenzy has already started.

In that spirit, The Ear wants to offer some CD suggestions in the coming weeks.

And here is the first one.

Twice in the past two recitals that violinist Hilary Hahn (below) has performed in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater, she has programmed a sonata by Charles Ives. (She played Ives’ Sonatas 3 and 4. We also heard pianist Jeremy Denk perform Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 1 at the WUT last season.)

Here is Hahn’s own account of the Ives project:

Ives (1874-1854, below), you may recall, was the granddaddy of American originals. He was born, raised and trained in America at Yale. But his iconoclastic and idiosyncratic music soon led him incur disapproval and rejection, so he abandoned music as a profession and become instead a lucrative insurance agent in Connecticut who composed music on the side.

Now that in itself is an American story.

In the 1950s and 1960s he was rediscovered, in large part by Leonard Bernstein (below), and now Ives seems as important a modern figure and as 20th-century American as any other composer, including Aaron Copland. Charles Ives is to modern American music what Wallace Stevens is to modern American poetry: the standard by which to judge all others.

Ives was eccentric and eclectic, a New England Yankee who used everything from original melodies to American hymns. He had brass bands playing different tune sin different keys marching toward each other. And he had a gift for intriguing titles: “Central Park in the Dark” and “The Unanswered Question.”

In any case, his four violin sonatas – which all fit on one generous CD — span his career and show him from his most melodious to his most dissonant, from his most discursive to his most terse. I am particularly fond of the fourth sonata, with its camp meeting themes, but each one offers rich rewards.

I am always reluctant to say that any one particular artist has recorded a definitive performance – especially since changing interpretations and spontaneity are at the heart of live performances.

But I am making an exception in this case. There are other recordings of the Ives violin sonatas out there, but none of them surpasses, or even approaches, what Hahn has achieved on her Deutsche Grammophon release.  And the engineering lives up to the playing with superb sound. 

Hilary Hahn is simply the most exciting and original talent in violin working today. She may not be a glitzy superstar star, like Itzhak Perlman, who flies around in private jets and commands astronomical fees.

But even young as she is, Hahn remains affordable and accessible, innovative and profound in her music-making. (Witness her collaborative work with composer Jennifer Higdon, below right, with Hahn), and her new encores project.)

And Hahn is fortunate indeed to find such an able and like-minded partner in pianist Valentina Lisitsa (below), who performed with her in her Madison concerts and who has also played two impressive solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos, to perform the hefty piano parts of these sonatas.

It will not surprise me if this album wins a Grammy for Best Solo Instrumental Performance or Best Chamber Music or even Best Classical CD of the Year, to say nothing of many international awards.

In fact, it would surprise me if it didn’t.

That’s how good it is.

Get it. Give it.

Posted in Classical music

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