This release appears to be as much about the musician as it is about the music. Ives’ second piano sonata has had numerous recordings since John Kirkpatrick’s landmark recording of 1948. It is a gargantuan work that requires formidable technical skills simply to play it and interpretive skills at a very high level. Here is a recording by an artist who certainly possesses the skill sets required.
Pianist Philip Bush has spent over twenty years playing, teaching and recording. He is well known in new music circles as a versatile and committed artist very familiar with Charles Ives’ music. Doubtless many have heard his work but his name is far better known among his peers than his listeners. Why? Well despite at least 24 releases his role as accompanist or ensemble member leaves his name recognition to his fellow artists and to fans who read credit listings on those recordings. This writer is reminded of another artist of a previous generation whose skills were unquestioned but his name less known. I’m talking about the wonderful Gerald Moore whose work as an accompanist graced many recordings of the 50s, 60s, and 70s where he worked alongside many different instrumentalists and singers. Moore’s charming album, “The Unashamed Accompanist” (1955) is a good humored tour of the hard work of the accompanist, the unsung hero. I don’t mean to suggest that Mr. Bush is an exact match for this analogy, but this album certainly puts him more in that soloist spotlight than any other he has done.
Despite many recordings of this masterpiece, ostensibly a landmark of American modernist composition, this work has yet to achieve the prominence it deserves in the recital hall. Bush’s performance along with his very clever inclusion of lesser known Ives contemporary, Marion Bauer’s Six Preludes for Piano, Op. 15 (1922) helps to provide context for the listener. Bauer was later the first American to study with Nadia Boulanger whose pedagogy would shape the careers of many of the great composers of the 20th century in many countries. The preludes are apparently included here as representing American music played more commonly in recitals of that time.
For a thorough summary and perspective on the Concord Sonata I have found Kyle Gann’s recent book on the subject to be illuminating. Ives himself felt the need to “explain himself” when he wrote a little book to be published concurrently with the sonata. Ives’ title for his book “Essays Before a Sonata” provide the inspiration for Gann’s subtitle (Essays After a Sonata). Ives’ near constant revisions add to the difficulties in even determining a final version of the score itself. The composer’s revisions and the partial recordings he did of the work add to the performer’s burden in the performance of the work. There’s even optional parts for flute (included in Bush’s recording played by Jennifer Parker-Harley) and for viola (not in Bush’s recording).
The Bauer preludes are far more conservative musically than the Ives of course but one could argue that nearly everything contemporary with the Concord Sonata sounds conservative by contrast. Bauer’s Op, 15 are relatively early works in her output. She lived and worked another 33 years after these little works which were apparently influenced by French Impressionism. There is no indication that Bauer and Ives ever met or discussed music but her work was the new music more commonly heard than that of the roughly concurrent work of Ives. The use of the stereopticon style slide on the album cover, a current technology of the time, also serves to provide a charming nostalgic reference to an era about to experience many rapid changes historically, technically, and conceptually in which the Concord becomes an American work analogous to The Rite of Spring (1913) as a signpost of the beginning of another era.
Despite the complexities, Bush’s reading of the Concord and the Bauer preludes are eminently listenable. That clarity is ultimately the value of this release. This recording is a wonderful opportunity to hear the artistry of a dedicated artist and academic. It helps make a case for the Concord to be recognized as an important work whose complexities are made clearer with each interpretation. Bravo, Professor Bush!