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Classical Lost And Found: Charles Ives' 'Concord' Sonata As A Symphony

Composer Henry Brant took 36 years to transform the "Concord" sonata by Charles Ives into a full-fledged symphony.
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Composer Henry Brant took 36 years to transform the "Concord" sonata by Charles Ives into a full-fledged symphony.

Charles Ives' monumental "Concord" Sonata has seen a reawakening lately, thanks in part to pianist Jeremy Denk's highly praised recording and recital performances, and to this San Francisco Symphony recording of an orchestration by American composer Henry Brant (1913-2008).

Ives began his craggy yet tender sonata in 1904, not finishing it until 1947. A tribute to transcendentalism, it's named after Concord, Mass., home to the first American proponents of this philosophy, some of which are the subjects of the sonata's four movements. Brant, in a true labor of love, began transcribing the sonata for orchestra in 1958, finally completing his Concord Symphony in 1994.

The piece begins with a musical portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the father of American transcendentalism. The music suggests the difficulties Emerson encountered in propounding his philosophy, and includes references to the four-note fate motif from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The most conflicted of the symphony's movements, it requires repeated listening to be fully appreciated.

The waggish scherzo pictures author Nathaniel Hawthorne much in keeping with his casual approach to transcendentalism. There are tone clusters (played in the piano version with a board), along with the folk music tidbits Ives so loved quoting. The slow movement, which honors the Alcott family, including Little Women author Louisa May, is a study in domestic tranquility.

A man of many pursuits, which included philosophy, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) is the subject of the concluding movement. He was born in Concord, where he spent most of his life, and it was there he met Emerson. The older man immediately took a paternal interest in Thoreau, encouraging him to contribute poems and articles to The Dial, which was the transcendentalists' official mouthpiece. The portrait is an elegiac musical stream of consciousness that seems in line with his many interests, and ends in tonal ambiguity commensurate with transcendentalism's elusive precepts.

The companion piece on the album is Aaron Copland's Organ Symphony (1924) commissioned by his teacher Nadia Boulanger. The dreamy opening prelude for pianissimo organ with flute, harp and strings is mesmerizing, and completely opposite from the percussive hiccupping scherzo, which includes a theme reminiscent of "Alouette." The finale begins as a dirge that becomes march-like, building to overpowering declarations from organ and orchestra.

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, with organist Paul Jacobs in the Copland, give stunning renditions of these works. Taken from live performances, the recordings are superb with no detectable audience noise except for applause at the very end of each piece.

Bob McQuiston revels in under-the-radar repertoire at his web site Classical Lost and Found.

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Bob McQuiston
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