Donald Berman’s faculty debut recital at Pickman Hall of the Longy School of Music of Bard College on Friday night constituted a manifold and eclectic tribute to modern composers. The one who was present, Scott Wheeler, heard his own six short pieces — portraits and tributes, as Berman described them — styled after the many “Portraits” by Virgil Thomson in honor of his friends. Thomson may have been Scott Wheeler’s teacher, but these pieces, short and precise and seemingly slight, struck me as much better than any of Thomson’s I have encountered. Morningside, for Wheeler’s piano teacher Monica Jakuc, was like a polyrhythmic two-part invention, with rumbles of impatience in the middle section, while Pseudo-Rag: GS, written thirty years ago for Gunther Schuller, was an atonal stride-piano piece, short and pungent. To His Music honored Malcolm Peyton of NEC, who was present to hear the middle-register bell chords and Scotch snaps; Cowley Meditation, dedicated to James Woodman of the Cowley Fathers, with an amiable A major and a twittering-bird melody, featured a different kind of low-register bells. By the Sea was the newest of the pieces, composed in 2013 to honor Stephen Sondheim, and making use of motives from Sweeney Todd in F-sharp minor. An Epithalamion for Donald Berman and Meredith Moss, upon their wedding in 1998, featured an abundance of warbling melody and flowing right-hand 16th-notes; I didn’t recognize the Yiddish folksong that was included, but I did recognize the D minor, which the Boston Musicians’ Union catalog, many decades ago, identified as the signal for Jewish wedding music. Study in Concord for Marianne Evett— the title is a double pun—was the last of the portraits, and made us of a meandering melody with the hands two octaves apart. It was a good piece to precede the Ives group that followed the intermission.
Ives’s Study no. 6, according to Berman’s program notes, has a melody that “circles through not quite all available twelve chromatic notes,” with the missing ones appearing in “open triads, peaking above and submerged below this note stream.” This description of chromatic partitioning is perfect; it was characteristic of Ives’s dodecaphonic experimentation even before Schoenberg. The chords themselves mark the time—especially with the sound of two superposed fourths, a favorite of Ives—but Lowell Mason’s “Nearer, my God, to thee” (Bethany) was too evanescent to be perceived in more than one or two notes. (Ives certainly loved the hymns of the Medfield master, as should every New Englander; he certainly deployed them in different works.)
The longest item of the evening was also the grittiest: the first movement, “Emerson,” of Ives’s Second Piano Sonata, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860.” The “Concord” Sonata launched Ives’s national and even international fame when first performed in 1939, even though Ives had completed it—or, rather, stopped working on it—20 years earlier. Maybe not everyone will agree, but the four movements of the Sonata begin with the most problematic, and work their way through to relatively greater clarity in the fourth movement (“Thoreau”). Don Berman has studied Ives’s revisions and sketches thoroughly enough to have confidently assembled, or perhaps reconstructed, an “extended play” version of “Emerson” that lasted more than fifteen minutes, which resulted in not only a mighty performance but a heroic feat of memorization. If I’m still baffled by the piece, I can only cheer Berman for his fearless playing. In all these years I have been dazzled and frightened by “Hawthorne,” charmed by “The Alcotts,” and deeply moved and reassured by “Thoreau,” but I have never been able to wrap my head around “Emerson,” and I think of the “Concord” Sonata as a whole, like the Fourth Symphony, as a poignant demonstration of Ives’s tragedy as a composer. He was not a genius; he was not an expert craftsman or technician. But he was unquestionably a great visionary, one quite without historical parallel, and he saw into the future, and into an oneiric universe of music, with uncanny courage and intensity, like the American transcendentalist that he was. In his time, there was hardly anyone, even among expert fellow composers and friends, who followed or could have followed more than a short distance along his self-chosen path, or understood his most significant accomplishments, still less given him the feedback or encouragement that every composer needs. The result is a multitude of unfinished works, with only a handful that show the necessary craftsmanship—Ives knew that he had to try and try again to get it right, and he tried. In many ways, I think the First Sonata is more successful than the Second, for just this reason. But the “Concord,” time and again, gives forth flashes of imagination that are worthy of the best that music has to offer; and Schoenberg, who was born in the same year as Ives, was close to the mark when he wrote of Ives that “he has solved the problem of how to be one’s self and how to learn.”
After the heavy cannonade of “Emerson” it was a relief to hear Ives’s Waltz Rondo, which was delightfully parodistic, combining a Moszkowski-like sentimentality and glitter with Ives’s more familiar battering-chord style in successive sections. This was followed by March no. 5, with Annie Lisle, a virtuoso piece from Ives’s years at Yale (the melody of “Annie Lisle” is better known to every Ivy League graduate as “Down beside Cayuga’s waters”). Both of these pieces showed Ives’s irrepressible penchant for comedy, and Berman carried them off with effortless aplomb. We heard an encore, too—another tribute by Scott Wheeler, For Steve, honoring a physician and friend.
The program began with two short pieces by Luciano Berio, Luftklavier and Wasserklavier from Six Encores; the “air piano” was more flowing, impressionistic and watery, while the “water piano” was more airy, ruminative, and E minor. These alternated with two Barcarolles by Gabriel Fauré (honoring Fauré’s pupil Nadia Boulanger, who in turn honored the Longy School in the 1940s). The A minor Barcarolle, op. 26, distributes its Spanish-like melody in the middle register surrounded by upper and lower arpeggios; the op. 66 Barcarolle is esoteric and difficult to follow in its rambling 9/8 phrase structure and constant modulation, but with mysteriously expressive chromatic harmony. Fauré’s weakness, in his Schumann-inspired piano writing, was a too-dependable arpeggiated accompanimental style that lacks rhythmic variety; this isn’t an impediment in his lovely songs, which are all short, but it can be a problem in the longer piano solos and especially in the chamber music. But it’s well compensated by the harmonic originality, which is characteristically French, and which set the tone for a generation of later composers.