Charles Ives hoped that his Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass 1840-60 would never be finished. The work went through countless revisions before and after the publication of the first edition in 1919. Even in the score of the final published edition in 1947, Ives instructs the performer not to take the score “literally.” As for what he meant by that, Ives noted that a pianist might play it differently “before breakfast, after breakfast” or “after digging potatoes.” Ives wanted performers to be inspired to bring their individual imaginations to bear on the work and to make it their own. The work should have no fixed and final shape. Rather, it should continue to be worked by performers.
This demand of self-reliance, individual exploration, and work seems appropriate for a sonata about and inspired by the American transcendentalist movement, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. And work it is. The Concord Sonata also places daunting technical demands on the performer. The demands were so severe that Conor Hanick’s preparation for Tuesday’s performance at Spoleto left his arms too sore to play the fast and finger-twisting second movement, “Hawthorne.”
This was a shame not only because I would like to have heard more of Hanick’s intelligent playing. His readings of the three other pieces, “Emerson,” “The Alcotts,” and “Thoreau,” were both technically and musically inspired. But I also missed “Hawthorne” because it injects a bit of humor into a monumental and philosophical piece of music. While Nathaniel Hawthorne often focused on human darkness in his writings, Ives focuses instead on the celebrated author’s “half-childlike, half-fairylike phantasmal realms.” “Emerson’s” grand, almost grandiose, density, the sentimental portrait of a New England home in “The Alcotts,” and the searchingly thoughtful “Thoreau” could have used a some childlike levity.
Hanick’s playing in the opening “Emerson” matched what he called, in his charming and informative preconcert remarks, the movement’s “fragmented fury of ideas.” “Emerson,” like the work of the philosopher himself, is expansively striding at one moment and quietly introspective the next. Like Emerson’s philosophy, Ives’s music is allusive and often quotes or gestures toward classic texts. Hanick highlighted some of these before the performance so the audience’s ears were alert to the ever-present themes from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Hammerklavier Sonata.
The variety of the tonal palette utilized by Hanick to draw attention to “Emerson’s” crazy quilt of musical detail was impressive. The crunchiness of the bright percussive chord clusters, hammered out of the wide open top of the Yamaha concert grand piano in a small hall, was almost too much at times. But since sublimity bordering on excess is a theme of the first movement, Hanick’s pushing of this limit seemed appropriate.
The rounded tone Hanick brought to the opening of “‘The Alcotts'” was beautiful. It was as though the hymn-like sonorities were being heard through a warm glow of fond memory. On occasion, Ives punctuates the lyrical melodies by notes distant from the key. Hanick makes them sound like sly, good-natured winks in an otherwise homey and nostalgic portrait of the home of Louisa May Alcott and her father. It was at these moments of subtle humor that made me wonder what fun Hanick would have had with the wild and satiric “Hawthorne.”
Ives steps beyond the bounds of the piano sonata by inviting (but not requiring) the pianist to briefly enlist the sounds of the viola and flute. Hanick took advantage of the opportunity. While the viola passage is tantalizing brief in “Emerson,” the solo flute is allowed to steal the show by knitting together the central theme toward the end of “Thoreau.” The sound, played from the back of the hall, felt both near (coming as it was from the audience’s space) and otherworldly.
After the final ethereal chord of faded into a reverent silence, the near-capacity audience, good-naturedly called “Ives crazies” by Hanick, gave an enthusiastic standing ovation through all three curtain calls.