Notes and Editorial Reviews
Essays for the Piano.
Piano Sonata No. 2,
“Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”
Martin Perry (pn)
BRIDGE 9390 (63:22)
Here is an interesting disc, combining music by the little-known Gordon Binkerd (1916-2003) with one of the most talked about, if not always listened-to, pieces of modern American music, Ives’s massive “Concord” Sonata. What makes the disc
particularly interesting, even controversial, is not the inclusion of Binkerd’s work, but the fact that this is the first recording of John Kirkpatrick’s final revision of this thorny work from the 1980s.
Annotator Drew Massey makes it very clear why this edition is different from all others, including Kirkpatrick’s own earlier versions: “Ives’s thick dissonances have been replaced at points with pure octave and fifth, the notation has been clarified throughout, and the meter of the work has been meticulously notated by Kirkpatrick.” I compared the opening movement, “Emerson,” of this edition to Donna Coleman’s superb 1989 recording of the 1947 Ives edition (Etcetera 1079). Ives himself wrote in his
of this movement that “this is, as far as I know, the only piece which, every time I play it or turn to it, seems unfinished.” Thus we have an artistic dilemma on our hands. If the composer himself considered it “unfinished,” and if he collaborated with Kirkpatrick (which he did) on nearly all of his previous editions of the sonata between 1933 and 1953, and thus gave his permission and his blessing to them, is this comment in his diary a compliment or a criticism? Ives may have felt that the “unfinished” nature of the music was a strength and not a weakness—after all, he prided himself on his rugged individualism—or he may have considered it a problem to be solved that he had neither the time nor the resources to accomplish on his own. Certainly, as his few recordings prove, he himself was a fairly limited pianist, yet he also wrote, near the end of his
Essays Before a Sonata,
“Why must the scarecrow of the keyboard—the tyrant in terms of the mechanism…stare into every measure? Is it the composer’s fault that man has only ten fingers?” Thus the dilemma. Would Ives himself have welcomed such a simplification of his work?
Without having seen the score of either edition, but judging solely by my ears, the differences between the two versions of the sonata are quite obvious. In the Ives original, it is not merely the harmonies that sound murky (if one can use such a term for constant and somewhat turgid dissonance) but also the rhythms. This is not to say that the sonata sounds
-romantic, but there are certainly many passages where a real melody (albeit a modern one) emerges in this movement, whereas in Ives’s original there is a constant feeling of unsettled, roiling emotions. In her liner notes for her CD, Coleman suggests that despite Ives’s claims in his
the sonata says more about the composer and his own reactions to transcendentalism than it does about Emerson, Thoreau, etc. I should also mention that, whereas Coleman uses the flute part in “Thoreau,” Perry does not.
And yet, the final Kirkpatrick edition solves one musical problem that Ives’s original does not: it makes the musical progression sound coherent in the tradition of many other modern piano sonatas, for instance the one-movement masterpiece by Charles Griffes. Again, is this “right” or “wrong,” or just “different”? I think the listener must decide this for him- or herself, although the fact that Kirkpatrick’s final edition has never been previously recorded is at least one indicator that neither academics nor professional pianists consider it an authentic representation of Ives’s musical thought, but an “arrangement.” And such it must be considered, regardless of one’s aesthetic reaction, as much as Larry Johnson’s arrangement of Ives’s Universe Symphony, even though I personally believe that the latter works better, and sounds more like Ives, than Kirkpatrick’s rearrangement of the sonata.
If nothing else, however, this arrangement acts as a gateway to an appreciation of this difficult piece for those millions of listeners who have heard it, perhaps only once, and rejected it. To some extent, I was like that myself, having heard an LP recording of it (I believe on the Monitor label) many years ago. I was “impressed” but not convinced by it. Of course, the quality of the performances probably had much to do with this, as I found Coleman’s performance convincing from the very first hearing, but I must admit that the Kirkpatrick-Perry version heard here—taken on its own merits, with no knowledge whatsoever of the original—is certainly convincing, never more so than in the lively scherzo, “Hawthorne.” Indeed, in this second movement I found myself actually
the music, particularly when Ives begins quoting other music, particularly his own
Country Band March
. Yet over and over, I kept asking myself if my enjoyment of this performing edition was what Ives himself wanted. Coleman even admits, in her liner notes, that Ives left “dozens” of versions of the sonata.
Of course, as Massey says in the liner notes, there are many recordings of the Ives original and just this one of the late Kirkpatrick arrangement, so one does not have to subscribe to this version alone. It certainly makes an interesting contrast with the actual music as Ives wrote it, and to be honest it is consistent in style with a great many of his songs, particularly the piano accompaniments to those songs, even such a complex masterpiece as
General William Booth Enters Into Heaven.
After such a long peroration on the Ives Sonata, it may seem unfair to then turn to the three
by Gordon Binkerd (1916-2003) but, to be honest, this is slight, pleasant, nicely-written but not particularly good or impressive music. Binkerd, educated at Eastman and Harvard, was professor of composition at the University of Illinois for more than 20 years. He lived on a farm, chopped his own wood, and cultivated a self-image as a rugged individualist. He needn’t have bothered. His music is meditative, ruminative, ethereal, and in one ear and out the other. Perry presents us here with
four through six (the notes don’t say how many were in the set), published in 1976 and based on songs that Binkerd wrote. Annotator Massey tries to draw a similarity between the opening of the fifth
titled “She, to Him,” with the opening of the “Emerson” movement of the Ives sonata, but this is like comparing Bartók’s
Concerto for Orchestra
to the French pop tune that is used in fragments for one of its movements. The Ives is a rich, complex work. Binkerd’s music is pleasant but ephemeral.
In all of this recital, however, Perry plays with an exceptional touch and fine styling. One realizes immediately that here is an outstanding musician, and this carries him through in every aspect of this recital.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Sonata for Piano no 2 "Concord, Mass 1840-60" by Charles Ives
Martin Perry (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1911-1915; USA
Essay for Piano no 4 by Gordon Binkerd
Martin Perry (Piano)
Essay for Piano no 5 by Gordon Binkerd
Martin Perry (Piano)
Essay for Piano no 6 by Gordon Binkerd
Martin Perry (Piano)
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Perry scores big with American composers April 30, 2013
By Ralph Graves (Hood, VA) See All My Reviews
"<br>Both works on this new release are first recordings, but for different reasons. Gordon Binkerd isn't a composer who's often performed, which is why his Essays get a recording premier here. Charles Ives' "Concord" Sonata has enjoyed several recordings, but this oft-revised work exists in many different versions -- this is the premier recording of one of them.</br>
<br>Gordon Binkerd was a Midwesterner who was active in the mid-Twentieth century. His music has a deliberately homespun roughness to it, which Binkerd used to express the inherent Americaness of his work. Whether the stance was authentic or not, Binkerd never received the attention of Copland and Barber, and his work has been sadly neglected.</br>
<br>I say sadly, because the three Essays for the Piano played here are well-crafted works that deserve a hearing. These works sound "American" without any affectation, and have real expressive power. The Essays are in a somewhat dissonant style, but still full of interesting and engaging melodies and harmonies.</br>
<br>Ives continually revised his Second Piano Sonata even after he had it published. So there are a lot of different -- and sometimes conflicting -- versions of the work in existence. Pianist John Kirkpatrick (who would in time become the curator of the Charles Ives Archive at Yale) pulled together all of these variant versions and created a definitive, final edition of the work. That's the version Perry plays in this release.</br> <br />
<br>As played by Perry, the sonata is very expressive, with some of the quieter sections sounding almost sweetly sentimental. Even during the roaring climaxes, Perry plays with taste and musicality. The music gets loud, but it's always under control -- not a mean feat with the maelstrom of notes and tune snippets Ives throws at the player. Perry delivers a very distinctive -- and faithful, I think -- interpretation of this complex work. And one that provides additional insights when compared to other performances.</br>"