Piano Pieces, Op. 11 (1909)
Musicale di Annalibera (1952)
Ives: Sonata No. 2,
Ives’ Concord Sonata is a beast of
a piece, with some of the literature’s thorniest
passages over its sprawling length (almost
three-quarters of an hour) and requires an
expert ability to sort out the texture’s disparate
strands. A high percentage of the score contains
densely written chords – some would say "muddy"
– that also sound muddy if not clarified.
As with voicing in Beethoven or other composers,
the interpreter here needs to show the listener
what to listen to – to point the way amid
the thickets. Granted, Ives may have intended
some messiness as part of the effect, but
the pianist still needs to say, "Here,
look at this, even though there are a zillion
other things fighting for your attention."
short work of this complexity, Nonken more
than proved her mettle by playing expert tour
guide, and the results were scintillating.
She was especially effective in the contrasts
between crunchingly dense pages that abruptly
disappear and in their wake are replaced by
wispy soliloquies. As she raced around the
keyboard, occasionally pausing for a hymn
here and there, some might say this is Ives
at his most maddeningly disorganized, but
I find this piece exhilarating. It is also
exhilarating watching a star pianist perform
it, since it is horrendously difficult to
play – not only for "getting all the
notes" but also in the stamina required.
loved watching Nonken’s athletic agility in
the second and third movements, Hawthorne
and The Alcotts. And she did a
beautiful job with Ives’ lone special effect:
a wooden block used to depress a group of
keys simultaneously – no doubt avant garde
in 1911. The result, a softly shimmering pulse
in the right hand as the left offered a fluid
counterpoint, was mesmerizing and at just
the right volume level.
Schoenberg was a canny pairing with the Ives,
since compositionally they are separated by
only a few years. It is difficult to imagine
how a 1909 audience would have responded to
these passionate unmoorings of tonality, and
Nonken’s illuminating reading brought out
a quiet urgency. It also made a great beginning
to a very well thought-out program.
Dallapiccola, written for his daughter’s eighth
birthday, is formally precise, more related
to Baroque composers (as Nonken describes
in her helpfully to-the-point program notes).
Its eleven sections use twelve-tone technique,
somehow more chastely deployed, and in interesting
contrast to the Schoenberg of forty years
earlier. (Perhaps he didn’t want to go overboard
on his daughter’s special day.) Again, Nonken’s
technique was clean, yet warmly inviting –
perhaps with a conscious choice to be a bit
restrained, a bit quieter, to prepare the
ears before the Ives after intermission.
Nonken do Salvatore Martirano’s Cocktail
Music a few years ago (aside from her
excellent recording), and liked it even more
this time around. My companion and I were
discussing the laconic title, seemingly at
odds with the hyperactive virtuosity, especially
in the later pages. The music is in the modernist
tradition, but seems borne of jazz a bit,
too, with flashes of humor that Nonken exploited
to the fullest, including some well-timed
trills. Further, much of the piece has giddy
avalanches of notes in very rapid tempi, and
it was almost amusing watching her hands dart
back and forth. With her keen reflexes, clearly
she was reserving any actual cocktails for
after the performance.