American Classics - Ives: Piano Sonata No 2, Etc / Mayer

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This recording has a lot going for it. Ives' music permits such a wide latitude of interpretive options that it's difficult to criticize any performance on grounds other then technical incompetence, and Steven Mayer not only plays extremely well, he has interesting ideas about how this music should sound. The Concord Sonata receives a magisterial performance, some 10 minutes slower than Marc-André Hamelin's benchmark recording for New World, but the music itself is so dense that it never sounds slow. Quite the contrary. If Mayer sacrifices some typical Ivesian wildness, he compensates by allowing us to hear more of what's going on in even the densest passages. He's particularly adept at pointing up, say, Beethoven's Fifth on its various appearances in "Emerson", and despite his comparative leisure, he highlights the abrupt contrasts of tempo and dynamics in "Hawthorne" as well as anyone.

Mayer's relaxed reading of the "The Alcotts" has special charm and a warmth that's just right for this portrait of two girls practicing the piano at home. "Thoreau" is let down a bit by the recording, which fails to back off far enough to realize a true pianissimo, even though Mayer scales down his dynamic range as Ives requests. Indeed, about the only other quibble I have aside from this one is that Mayer doesn't give us a true "very fast" in the 7/4 section of "Emerson", though of course it's an open question whether or not Ives himself would have cared. In the final analysis, this performance makes an excellent introduction to the work, combining a healthy dose of Romantic expressiveness with great clarity, concentration, and boldness. Even the readings between movements (of bits of Ives' own essays and fragments taken from the eponymous writers, an aspect of the performance I truly dreaded) are sonorously but simply intoned by Kerry Shale, coming off well as a sort of palate-cleansing sorbet between the larger courses.

The three shorter works, all more or less related to the sonata (everything in Ives tends to be related to everything else anyway), make for a very interesting and entirely appropriate bonus. I particularly enjoyed the wacky and truculent Varied Air and Variations, a riotously obnoxious piece that doesn't get as much attention as it should. As noted, the sonics, though generally good, tend to put the microphones a touch too close to the piano, and in consequence somewhat limit the dynamic range while capturing a bit of performance noise besides--but this isn't really troublesome. If you're looking for a satisfying, low-priced way to get to know some truly remarkable piano music through intelligent and sympathetic performances, you can't go wrong here.
--David Hurwitz,

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8559221

  • UPC: 636943922125

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Charles Ives

  • Performer: Steven Mayer