CD Review: Hilary Hahn: Ives: Four Sonatas (w/Valentina Lisitsa)

On Hilary Hahn’s new album (13th overall, 8th for DG) the vitruoso offers up the 4 completed violin sonatas of Charles Ives, pieces that she’d been performing live in concert for several years with pianist Valentina Lisitsa, who appears on both her first studio recording with Hahn as well as her first on DG.

As one goes through the 4 sonatas, it is evident throughout that Ives “painted” what he saw. The sonatas all contain themes from early-American songs, hymns and spirituals and seem to be inspired by contemporary life and activities in New England. Ives made a very interesting blend of his Americana with the sounds of a movement towards changing tonality in classical music.

The four sonatas are all presented here in their final editions, the first 3 having been revised and re-thought by Ives in later years following the publication of the 4th and last piece “Children’s Day at The Camp Meeting”, itself the most well-known and shortest of the pieces. I always found the abrupt ending of the 4th Sonata perplexing, yet this piece was Ives’ favorite and is the most performed.

Hahn and Lisitsa make a very original presentation on this release, opting for an intimate, dry-sounding recording (at least drier than Hahn’s previous classical recordings), and the nature of the pieces, with the sound of early-American themes woven throughout lends itself perfectly to this. The piano part, especially the piano-only sections of the pieces are displayed brilliantly by Lisitsa’s broad, sweeping gestures on the piano, having an equal role in what are really duets for violin and piano, and Hahn’s violin sings with all the nerve and passion of an early 20th century jazz singer, particulary on the “Need” theme featured in the third movement of Sonata #3.

The highlights on the album for me are the 2nd movements of Sonatas #2 and 3: The 2nd Sonata’s Presto (Titled “In The Barn”) provides an incredible shot in the arm during an otherwise moody sonata. It was such a joy to see Hahn perform this piece live in concert a few years back. At times she seemed to move almost as if it were choreographed.
On the 3rd Sonata’s 2nd movement, marked “Allegro”, the tempo is pumped fast and steadily by Lisitsa. A somewhat slower reading of this movement was recorded by Hahn herself on a 2008 episode of the NPR series From The Top, where she performed it with Christopher O’Riley, but even with the differences in tempo, Hahn’s identity with the piece remains the same.

Ives, having faced much criticism and scorn during his lifetime for his works, didn’t begin to get recognition until peers and fellow composers like Aaron Copland, Arnold Schoenberg, Leonard Bernstein and Elliott Carter spoke up for him. Hilary Hahn, having championed and re-popularized the rarely-performed Schoenberg Violin Concerto on her Grammy-winning 2008 recording may do the same for Ives’ work, and this could quite deservedly earn her another Grammy nod as well.

Ives: Four Sonatas
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3 thoughts on “CD Review: Hilary Hahn: Ives: Four Sonatas (w/Valentina Lisitsa)

  1. Performance:
    This is a good performance but for me it’s a toss-up with the Thompson/Walters recording. I prefer some movements by Hahn/Lisitsa (#3 mvmt 2 for example) whereas I prefer the other in the legato movements. Some movements in this recording sound dull.

    Recording/sound engineering:
    I don’t care for the dry acoustics in this recording. The pianist did fine in this environment but the violin has a somewhat pinched presence all throughout, and I don’t just mean in #2 mvmt 2 where the violin is supposed to sound pinched because the score indicates the use of a mute. I’m not a fan of senseless over-romantic reverberation and tons of echo, but this recording is too dry for my tastes. Recording in a slightly larger environment could’ve added a bit of missing texture to the recording. If the artists/engineers were going for a straight forward, no nonsense sound to suit the neo-abstract elements in these pieces, I think the effect falls short and at worst comes across as occasionally dull and barren.

  2. Interesting, I have that recording as well, I did notice that Thompson and Walters played the sonatas slower when I played the recording again getting this one ready for review. But you can always find things that are going to go up against one another in comparison time and time again.
    Very observant of you on the mute, though, I’m not always aware when I hear that being used. I even saw Hilary perform the pieces live, and I don’t remember it being used then.

    I figured the sound of the CD was not going to go over well with everyone. Hilary has been recorded with dense production when she performed on a few indie side-projects, but I never dreamed I’d hear a classical CD of hers done that way. It’s possible she decided that the turn-of-the-century American flavor of the sonatas called for it. I’m actually happy she took a chance with it.

    Thanks for reading!

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