Charles Ives sharing – and subtracting – prominence to Ludwig van Beethoven? And in the year of his great anniversary? The Puritans could tear their clothes and many will concede that it is, no doubt, a strange couple. We are, however, faced with a natural twinning and, without the need to hurry much, necessary. One of the greatest supporters of contemporary piano, the Frenchman Pierre-Laurent Aimard, was perhaps the first to propose the experiment when, in January 2017, at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, he played a program composed of the Sonata No. 29 Beethoven, known as “Hammerklavier”, and the Sonata No. two of Ives, which he titled Concord, Mass., 1840-60 (we will see soon why). A year later he repeated the experience at the Aldeburgh Festival. Alexander Lonquich has replaced the first work of the diptych with the Diabelli Variations, the last great piano composition of the German composer, and has reversed the order. It would have been much better to probably keep that same chronological sequence (Beethoven-Ives), as Aimard did, especially since the Juan March Foundation does not have to resort to the age of programming modern music in the first part, as so many institutions do, for fear of a general disruption during intermission. His programming philosophy and the adult treatment that he demonstrates over and over again to dispense with his audience seem incompatible with such fears.
Ives: Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-60. Beethoven: Diabelli variations, op. 120. Alexander Lonquich (piano). Juan March Foundation, February 19.
Alexander Lonquich’s concert was the fifth and last of a revealingly titled cycle Beethoven: permanent change. Ives – the only guest of what has been an authentic Beethovenian monograph – would have felt very satisfied if it had been his name that appeared before the colon, because he was also a lover of incessant metamorphosis and a champion of artistic progress . Unlike his colleague, the American was never a professional composer and nobody dared to really take him for such. His genius in the field of insurance (his true trade) gave him an economic relief that allowed him to be a loose verse not only of American music, but of international musical modernism of the beginning of the last century. He liked to break the rules so much, to cross borders, to go into closed areas, which often subsequently damaged the date of his compositions, assigning them a birth before the real one so that they seemed, if possible, more innovative. He was a radical avant-garde long before the avant-gardes themselves began to shyly show their heads. Ives is the paradigm of the free, unchained creator: he did everything he wanted, how he wanted and when he wanted to. He could have immediately endorsed those words that Griesinger puts in Haydn’s mouth in his pioneering biography of the author of The creation: “I had no choice but to be original.” Haydn, for being held in Eszterháza, separated from the world; Ives, to observe everything from outside, far from the heat of envy and oblivious to the tyranny of gifts.
Beethoven, however, had to go a long way until he managed to settle in a territory, mutatis mutandis, no less free than Ives’s. In that sense, works like the two mentioned, the Sonata “Hammerklavier” and the Diabelli Variations, are flags nailed in authentic terra incognita, hitherto unexplored places that caused the understandable confusion among his contemporaries and were erected in a difficult-to-climb wall for his successors. The Variations debtors of the Goldberg bachianas, of course, something that its editor, Anton Diabelli (author of the waltz that serves as the foundation of the colossal building) already perceived and explained, when, when announcing its publication in 1823, he proclaimed that it was “a great and important masterpiece worthy of standing next to the imperishable creations of the classics ”and worthy of occupying“ a place next to Sebastian Bach’s work in the same way ”. If anyone doubts the impact of Bach in general, and the Goldberg Variations in particular, in 33 Variations on a waltz, op. 120 of Beethoven, who listens to no. 24, 29, 31 and 32, the latter – before the surprising minuet that ends the work – a triple escape.
We have received dozens of drafts of both the Sonata “Hammerklavier” as of the Diabelli Variations, but hardly any of Beethoven’s motivations when he composed one and the other. Charles Ives, on the other hand, left us almost an aesthetic treatise in which he explains, with an unusual degree of detail, what lies behind each of the four movements of his Sonata “Concord, Mass., 1840-60”. The titles are already very revealing: Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts Y Thoreau. The four names converge in the North American transcendentalist movement, which had its epicenter precisely in Concord, the town of Massachusetts, and lived its splendor in the years that Ives pointed out in his title. In Concord is the Orchard House, the house where the Alcott lived, in which Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women and that, in the heat of the last film adaptation directed by Greta Gerwig, he has seen his visits tripled in recent months. In The Old Manse, also in Concord, lived the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne; In 18 Cambridge Turnpike stands the house of Ralph Waldo Emerson, now also a museum, and on a plot of Emerson itself, next to Lake Walden, Henry David Thoreau built his famous cabin. All this was the inspiration and in turn finds reflection in the monumental composition of Ives, which Virgil Thomson described as “four extensive portraits made with breath, tenderness and ingenuity.”
It takes a lot of courage to face the score of Ives in public, which he himself edited in 1920, just as he had done a few months before with his Essays Before a Sonata, the aforementioned theoretical support of the composition. Not only for its duration (about fifty minutes), but for its monstrous technical difficulties. Ives’ music is polymetric, polychoric, polyonal, polyrhythmic, without bars, often written on three staves, with clusters (bunches of notes) unthinkable in European music of the twenties. Elliott Carter was lucky to hear “Mr. Ives, ”as he called it, fragments of the play,“ singing loudly and exclaiming with feverish enthusiasm. ” And remember how whenever he played it he introduced something different, “sometimes changing the harmonies, the dynamic scheme, the degree of dissonance, the tempo” The composer confessed – Carter recalls – that his goal was “to offer only a general indication to the pianist, who should, in turn, recreate the work for himself.”
Thus, few buts can be put to the interpretation of Alexander Lonquich, who opted for a much more classic approach (if it is possible to award such an adjective to Ives) than groundbreaking. Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s vision is, for example, much more radical, with a much more perverse piano, a more hurtful sound, a much more incisive articulation, some tempi more extremes Lonquich missed many crosses of hands pointed at the score (he opted for the revised version of 1947), but that does not matter. He precisely handled the wooden slat to produce the clusters from Emerson (pages 25 and 26 of the score), followed a few pages later by the emergence of a popular march, which Lonquich could have played with greater doses of humor, since here is one of the main points of intersection with the Diabelli. In the moments when Emerson It seems the musical representation of a runaway horse, Lonquich was sure, but again too orthodox, as when he closed the final dynamic sequence of this first movement (pp – ppp – pppp) without extreme differences.
He felt much more comfortable in The Alcotts, the most classic and unequivocally more lyrical bill movement, and, with the confidence it gives to approach the end of the ascension of such a demanding mountain, offered perhaps its best moments in Thoreau. He chose to include both parts ad libitum for viola and flute in the extreme movements, one of the numerous changes introduced in the revised version, but perhaps it was not a good idea to let Bella Chich and Vinicius Lira play from behind the stage, with the door half open, since they could be heard with difficulty (the viola plays a few descending chromatic triplets for only two measures, while the flute has four staves, since there are no compass bars here). Once set, it would have been preferable to place them on the side of the room, or at the back, or on the balcony above the stage. In Bonn, Tabea Zimmermann played those two measures walking from side to side of the stage, invisible to the public before and after, something that fits very well with that slow descent into the silence of the end of Emerson.
After recovering the resounding after the formidable physical and mental effort (and once the piano tuning was retouched after the very hard test to which he had been subjected), Lonquich addressed the Diabelli with a much greater familiarity (he touched them by heart, without forgetting a single repetition), conveying the sensation of stepping on known territory and, somehow, friend. But the last Beethoven is extremely elusive and does not become fond of anyone. As an extraordinary musician, Lonquich left technical, musical and, above all, timbre unforgettable moments: there are phrases, bars, flashes in which his pulsation is pure crystal. But the Diabelli they are an obsessive, monomaniac work, while splattered with humor, biting and irony, to the point that one of his best theoretical and practical interpreters, Alfred Brendel, ventured the possibility that, ultimately, it was not more than a “gigantic farce.” Lonquich did not particularly affect the comic component and, in fact, showed his best self in variations such as numbers 7, 14 (an essential turning point in the development of the cycle), 20 (with perfectly interwoven chords), 24 and 31 (both of unequivocally Bachian lineage). The great triple leak of no. 32 shone more for its clarity than for its spirit.
Lonquich probably did not reach the height of the great performers of the work (Richter, Uchida, Schiff, Barenboim, Levit, the aforementioned Brendel), but also came from making an unimpeded effort, to run the first of two successive marathons. However, the applause of an audience aware of the feat encouraged him to offer the program off Intermezzo op. 118 no. two from Brahms, where he seemed to finally enter the territory most dear to his sensitivity (Schumann is another of the composers in which he shines with his own light). But what will remain in the memory is the rarity of having been able to hear in the same concert two extreme, or extreme, music, as Fray Luis wrote in the Ode to Francisco de Salinas, which here we can understand in the double meaning of excessive and outstanding. Of the multiple musical loans that Charles Ives uses in his sonata, the most repeated is undoubtedly that of the initial design of the Fifth Symphony Beethoven (three short notes followed by a long one with a third downward jump), which sounds on numerous occasions, more or less camouflaged, with one or other harmonic clothing, in the four movements. And attentive ears will also identify an explicit reference at the beginning of the Sonata “Hammerklavier”. Reason for more so that the author’s voice has also been heard loud and clear Central Park in the dark or The unanswered question in this tribute to Beethoven that has just closed at the Juan March Foundation. Two rebels, two iconoclasts, two transgressors united by the hand.