MEDFORD - Some monuments need to be experienced in person; Charles Ives's Piano Sonata No. 2 ("Concord, Mass., 1840-60") is one of them, but performances of this sprawling, Great American Novel of a work aren't exactly everyday occurrences. Tufts University made an occasion out of the inauguration of a Guest Artist Series in its new performance hall, inviting pianist Gilbert Kalish for a recital centered around the piece.
The virtues of Kalish's pianism are those of traditional oratory: a solidly framed and projected tone, crisp enunciation, and a clear sentence-to-sentence cadence. In Beethoven's Op. 119 Bagatelles, 11 classical sketches rendered alternately quirky or gnomic by their aphoristic length, Kalish's sharply etched phrasing counterpointed the music's improvisatory cast, underpinning the sometimes playful surface with probing functionality.
Copland's "Four Piano Blues" were less successful, the one time where Kalish, who played from scores throughout, was perhaps too tied to the printed text: Shifts of tempo and dynamics seemed more reactions to the page than organic to the musical flow. But the picaresque grandeur of Haydn's Sonata No. 62, his last exercise in that genre, proved an ideal canvas for Kalish's straightforward approach. The virtuosic demands were tossed off with sturdy exuberance, while the composer's harmonic and formal sleight of hand was neatly camouflaged by Kalish's guileless interpretive mien.
In the years since Kalish's landmark 1976 recording of the "Concord" Sonata, it would seem that the pianist hasn't changed his conception of the piece so much as further sublimated its technical challenges to the dramatic and emotional intention: Kalish quite simply owns this music. The massive, chiseled-rock opening "Emerson" was marked with nobility rather than struggle; in the "Thoreau" finale (with Nina Barwell atmospherically layering in Ives's optional flute echo), sheets of notes coalesced into the ideal luminous haze. The demonic, ragtime-tinged "Hawthorne" coursed with thermonuclear energy; "The Alcotts" found the rich, serendipitous, not-at-all simple tenor of childhood.
The real challenge of Ives's unquiet Transcendental meditation is not its monumentality, but that its size and complexity are only by-products of its philosophical discourse. Eschewing orderly hierarchical subordination, each element retains its own individual purpose and direction. Given the sheer density of the music's texture, that's a tall order indeed, but Kalish pulled it off. It was the illusion of a heightened consciousness - not flattening reality into a single perception, but expanding perception until it is as simultaneous and variegated as existence itself.