IN: Reviews

Informal but Scintillating Recital


Joel Sachs (Rosalie O’Connor photo)

I would not ordinarily report here on a private concert, but make this exception for personal reasons: a Sunday afternoon performance by my Harvard classmate (‘61) Joel Sachs, pianist and musicologist, who teaches at The Juilliard School and was the longtime co-director of New York’s Continuum ensemble that promotes 20th-century music. This informal but scintillating recital by my old friend took place in Lexington under the auspices of the Brookhaven Friends of Music, with the title “Midday Thoughts — Charles Ives and his Circle.” The program began with an actual Midday Thoughts, a short reworking (1982) of a 1944 discarded sketch by Aaron Copland, tonally rather in the vein of his Dickinson Songs or the quieter portions of the Piano Fantasy. Prelude No. 9 and Study in Mixed Accents by Ruth Crawford Seeger followed. Dating from the late 1920s, both short pieces explore low-register piano sounds and moto perpetuo melodies with intensity; one remembers that in those years Crawford wrote music that could be called experimental in technique, but she always subordinated intellect to natural expressivity.

Tiger by Henry Cowell offers a study in piano clusters ranging from fists to forearms — imagine beginning with Stravinsky’s “Spring Fortunetelling” chords (no. 13 of The Rite of Spring) and expanding outwards in both hands ← → chord by chord. “This is what Henry Cowell became most famous for,”  Sachs explained. Oxford University Press published his “Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music” in 2015.

The big piece of the day was Charles Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 1, composed 1901-1909, “right after the Second Symphony,” as Sachs’s expertly written and expansive program notes reveal (I had actually thought the sonata dated from several years later). I’ve previously expressed in these pages (July 20, 2021) my thoughts that this massive work is more coherent and consistent than the much better-known “Concord” Sonata no. 2. The formal proportions are more comfortable and less gnostic; the tonal background clearer and the atonality less unglued; and the folksong and hymnodic material simultaneously more direct and more subtle — but none of these are sufficient payback for Ives’s winning expressionism. “Bringing in the sheaves” triumphs in the fourth movement, but the expressive eloquence especially resides in the third, where “What a friend we have in Jesus” overlaps with “Massa’s in de cold, cold ground.” The pianist explained to me, after the concert, his conviction that much of Ives’s studied inclusion of extra dissonances might derive from his experience as a church organist, drawing mutation stops for adding odd partials.  It would be interesting to find out whether there were resonant stone churches in Ives’s Danbury.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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  1. Interesting comments regarding the first sonata against the titanic second. I wonder, however, if we’re making a so-called apples to oranges comparison between the two pieces when looking at the constituent theoretical pieces. The fist sonata is clearly composed with the form far more in mind, absolute taking over for the programmatic, where Horatio Parker still looms in the background not too far removed from his days at Yale (I know, I know, that’s also where we get other pieces like Calcium Light Night and the beginnings of Thanksgiving from, but he also became a bit more form-interested when working with Parker mostly to please him; I can’t imagine that would leave your thoughts for a few years after the fact, despite pushing back against it even as he did). The second is a far more ethereal and programmatic work, attempting to represent different aspects of these great Concord thinkers in music both pastiche and commentary alike. Let us not forget the fact that he wrote the Essays Before a Sonata acting as commentary on what the work entails and why, something the first sonata lacks entirely. The form is far looser, yes, because the form isn’t the main consideration when he was writing the work. The quotations are far more direct and less subtle, yes, because they’re now not simply musical objects but commentary on the subjects of Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcott family, and Thoreau as much as musical material for the sake of itself. The comparison strikes me as unfair. Each work is trying to accomplish something different, so if they both succeed at what they do, then each work is a good one in its own right.

    Comment by Ian Wiese — October 24, 2023 at 2:57 pm

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