Heather O'Donnell

Responses to Ives

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One thing's for certain; when it came to questions, American composer Charles Ives preferred to leave them unanswered or at least open-ended. Ives' restlessly exploratory mind sought out the farthest reaches of music with the resources he had at hand, but upon reaching the edges of the universe, he was strangely incurious about the resolution; it wasn't about the answer so much as it was about the journey. Nevertheless, Ives' plunge into the unknown has provided a good deal of inspiration to contemporary composers, more so in the twenty first century than in the twentieth. Pianist Heather O'Donnell has curated a program of "answers" to various gauntlets tossed down by Ives in mode records' Responses to Ives. Ives speaks for himself, but the answers are provided by composers Walter Zimmermann, Michael Finnissy, the late James Tenney, Sidney Corbett, and O'Donnell's husband, composer Oliver Schneller. O'Donnell's program was devised as an observance of the 50th anniversary of Ives' death in 2004, though this recording wasn't made until 2007.

Like the gradual increase in the power and sensitivity of telescopes, more of Ives' musical galaxies are visible than ever, thanks to improved performance techniques that permit more salient observation of them, an increased abundance of good Ives recordings and improved critical editions of his work, or performers who study Ives' manuscripts in the originals and make their own choices. O'Donnell's benchmark for Ives -- like that for many pianists -- is the Concord Sonata, a work that only a few pianists would dare to take on as late as the 1960s yet is far more widely played in the twenty first century. Much of the Ives O'Donnell plays here -- including some of his hardest compositions -- is treated as though it was close to the Concord or at least informed by its example. This approach definitely works well, particularly for the two Transcriptions from "Emerson" included; the recording of Study No. 21: Some Southpaw Pitching! is clearly the most focused and accurate version ever offered on disc. O'Donnell balances out Ives' odd mixture of atmosphere, dread, furor, and sentimentality in Study No. 9: The Anti-Abolitionist Riots in the 1830s and 1840s. These are difficult works to interpret; the published scores tend to be dense and phrasing is difficult to parse out from what appears on the page. The Anti-Abolitionist Riots in particular reads more like prose than poetry, and the typical, continuous thread of barlines and music is not what one encounters in it; however, O'Donnell finds the filament of Ives' argument and delivers a seamless performance. Also, Ivesians will be delighted to note the first recording here of Ives' "London Bridge is Fallen Down!," a tiny 1891 piece previously only recorded in a band arrangement, though the original is for organ, or by extension, piano. Careful ears can pick out a bit of it lurking around in the background of "Putnam's Camp," and it definitely works as a piano piece.

Among the responses, Essay (after a sonata) by the late James Tenney is particularly lovely, an Ivesian theme patiently and carefully picked out on the piano strings. Sidney Corbett's The Celestial Potato Fields winningly appeals to Ives' distant, spectral aspect, whereas Michael Finnissy's Song of Myself reflects the rumbling romanticism of pieces like the "Emerson" movement of the Concord. Schneller's partly electronic "And tomorrow..." utilizes Ives' Quarter-Tone Pieces as a point of departure, producing something more ghostly and solidly within the experimental tradition than a lot of things one might hear at IRCAM, though it is not without a certain romantic timbre, a property also heard in Walter Zimmermann's "the missing nail at the river," that serves as sort of a dialogue between sparse notes played on both a toy piano and a concert grand.

The Deutschlandfunk recording, which is somewhat distant, loud but boomy, has some measure of disadvantages; the complex left hand runs in "Rough and Ready" disappear in the reverberation, and if O'Donnell plays the "silent chord" that ends "The Seen and Unseen?" it cannot be heard either, though Ives lists that effect as optional and it might not have been used in this case. Nevertheless, Responses to Ives is a very valuable addition to the conversation about Charles Ives and what he means to twenty first century musicians -- the future audience Ives imagined he was addressing -- in a diversified sense. We might read Ives' Memos, Essays Before a Sonata, the marginal comments in his illegible "snake tracks" and even his insurance industry-related writing, and yet come away with numerous questions as he is just an endlessly fascinating and enigmatic character. Recordings such as the excellent one O'Donnell has made here are really the only way musicians in the twenty first century can expect to "talk" to him.

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