Michael Tilson Thomas / The San Francisco Symphony, The San Francisco Symphony Chorus / "An American Journey" (RCA 09026-63703-2) This recording includes:
I was not especially impressed with Tilson Thomas' Sony recording of "The Unanswered Question." It was a bold interpretation, but it moved along a bit too slowly for my taste. This RCA recording is his second shot at the work, and this time MTT hits the bullseye. This is certainly the grandest, most "cosmic" version of the work that I've heard. It's still a relatively slow reading (6.19), but it's nearly a minute faster than the Sony recording. In any case, there's a stillness, a weightlessness in this performance that perfectly conveys the vastness and emptiness of the cosmos. But the work also seems perfectly paced, and there's never a sense of lost momentum. Time seems to creep slowly, tangibly by, oblivious to human concerns. And because the strings are so mysterious and "still," the outbursts from the brass/woodwind group are even more extreme, more jarring. This is a tremendous performance from one of Ives' greatest advocates. Required listening.
Gerhard Samuel / Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra (Centaur CRC 2205, coupled with Orchestral Set No. 2 and the Universe Symphony, realized by Larry Austin)
This is another of my current favorite versions of "The Unanswered Question." Don't be put off if you've never heard of Gerhard Samuel or the Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra. They perform beautifully. It's a middle-of-the-road reading in terms of pacing (5:56), but Samuel doesn't compromise any of mystical or cosmic aspects of this music. Even more impressively, Samuel and the Cincinnati PO also bring out the work's rough-hewn, transcendental qualities. You can hear a level of detail here that other conductors gloss over. This recording is the most idiomatic that I've ever heard. In terms of couplings, I'm not completely convinced by Austin's realization of the Universe Symphony, but--if you're an Ives fan--you probably should hear it anyway. Also, Samuel's reading of the Orchestral Set No. 2 is one of my favorite recordings of that work. In short, all serious Ives fans should check this disc out.
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (DG 2GH 439869, coupled with Symphony No. 3, Orchestral Set No. 1, Set for Theatre Orchestra, and Set No. 1 for Small Orchestra)
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra offers a fine reading of "The Unanswered Question"--and one that is very different from Samuel's or Tilson Thomas'. Whereas Samuel's reading is, at times, pleasingly scrappy, the OCO emphasizes organ-like sonorities in the work. Their reading is very smooth and very quick (5:10)--though not as quick as Sinclair's. I was immediately struck by the OCO's performance, and it is another of my favorites. [However, the other recordings on this disc are uneven. The Third Symphony is outstanding (my top pick), but the other sets are just too tame.]
James Sinclair / Northern Sinfonia (Naxos 8.559087, coupled with "Washington's Birthday" from The Holidays Symphony, Symphony No. 3, "Central Park in the Dark," "Country Band" March, and Overture and March "1776")
This is fastest reading that I've heard--except for Stokowski's on M&A (see below). Sinclair moves along in a swift 4:36. But, unlike Stokowski's sprint through the work, Sinclair's reading doesn't feel rushed. This is a very compelling, well-shaped performance. To my ears, this is not the strangest, most cosmic performance of "The Unanswered Question" out there. Instead, there's a very natural sense of momentum and mysterious unfolding. This disc also includes Sinclair's idiomatic "Central Park in the Dark," for the complete "Two Contemplations."
Michael Tilson Thomas / Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical MK 42381, coupled with "Central Park in the Dark" and the Holidays Symphony)
This recording has the benefit of offering two versions of this work: Ives' original and revised versions. Since the versions are quite similar, I'm going to generalize about both. Tilson Thomas' readings are the slowest that I've ever heard (7:13 and 7:01). The readings have a cosmic quality that's very impressive. Unfortunately, I think MTT sacrifices too much forward momentum to achieve his sense of massive scale and cosmic stasis. Naturally, everyone will not agree with me. Despite my gripe, I strongly suggest that anyone with the mildest interest in Ives go buy this disc immediately. Tilson Thomas' reading of the Holidays Symphony, coupled with "The Unanswered Question" on this disc, is one of the most magnificent Ives recordings that I've ever heard. Don't let my nit picking bother you. You've got to hear this disc.
Leonard Bernstein / New York Philharmonic Orchestra (DG 2GH 429220, coupled with "Central Park in the Dark," Symphony No. 2 and various orchestral works by Ives)
Lenny's reading on DG is slower than his earlier version on Sony (6:07 compared to 5:26). But both are impressive, if not quite as vividly characterized as Samuel, MTT II, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, or Sinclair. Forced to pick one Lenny recording, I'd go with the DG release because the Sony has distractingly poor sound quality.
Michael Gielen / SWR Symphony Baden-Baden and Freiburg (Hänssler Classic CD 93.097, coupled with "Central Park in the Dark" and a Mahler's Symphony No. 1)
I like this recording of "The Unanswered Question" very much. Like most of Gielen's recordings, this one has a no-nonsense, serious-minded quality. The fairly rapid pacing (5.18) also keeps the interpretation taut. It's coupled with a slightly less effective "Central Park in the Dark" and a reading of Mahler's First Symphony, which I have not heard.
Leonard Bernstein / New York Philharmonic Orchestra (Sony Classical SMK 60203, coupled with the Holidays Symphony, "Central Park in the Dark," and Carter's "Concerto for Orchestra")
As I said, the Sony release is marred by poor sound and loads of ambient noise. (It sounds as if musicians are slamming closed their instrument cases!) Between the DG and Sony Lenny releases, I probably prefer earlier recording on purely musical grounds. But that sound quality is eesshhh! Happily, the Holidays Symphony coupled on this disc is recorded very adequately, despite different recording times and locations.
Morton Gould / Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA Navigator 09026-61402-2, coupled with Orchestral Set No. 2, Symphony No. 1, and the Robert Browning Overture)
This is a very good recording of "The Unanswered Question." It's one of the slower performances out there, clocking in at 6.57. But Gould's interpretation holds together well, and the structure of the work never seems to flag. But, in the end, the reading doesn't quite generate the sense of mystery and grandeur that would earn it a spot near the top.
Michel Swierczewski / The Gulbenkian Foundation Orchestra (Nimbus NI 5316, coupled with "Central Park in the Dark," Three Places in New England, and Robert Browning Overture, out of print)
This performance, by the Portuguese Gulbenkian Foundation Orchestra, is another solid one--even if it doesn't achieve the mystery and grandeur of the best recordings. It's a moderately paced, clocking in at 6.06.
Leopold Stokowski / Japan Philharmonic Orchestra (Music & Arts CD 4787, coupled with works performed by other orchestras, including: Ives Second Orchestral Set [LSO], Messiaen's "L'Ascension for Orchestra" [LSO], Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" [BBC SO], and Barber's "Adagio for Strings" [Large SO of Soviet Radio and TV])
Stokowski sprints through this faster than anyone else. His recording clocks in at 3:54! It's an adequate, if not especially riveting, performance. Recorded live, the sound is rough.
H. Robert Reynolds / Detroit Chamber Winds and Friends / "Remembrance: A Charles Ives Collection" (Koch International Classics KIC 7182) This recording includes:
H. Robert Reynolds and the Detroit Chamber Winds put together a winning, infectious recording--but I think that their version of "The Unanswered Question" is one of the weak spots on this Koch disc. It just sounds a bit too earth-bound and smoothed out. Rather than sounding mysterious, it just comes off as tired. But don't let my remarks about this particular track deter you from listening to this disc. I've really enjoyed it. This conductor and ensemble have got a real knack for the more rambunctious stuff.
Leonard Slatkin / The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-6122-2, coupled with "Central Park in the Dark," Symphony No. 3, and other orchestral works, out of print)
Slatkin does not convince me at all. I prefer other versions.
Harold Farberman / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Vanguard Cardinal Series VCS-10013, coupled with the Set for Theatre Orchestra, "The Circus Band March" [arranged by H. Farberman], and The Robert Browning Overture, out of print)
As with many of Farberman's performances, this recording is solid--but not particularly compelling. There's nothing wrong with it, but there's nothing special here either. And in light of so much competition...well, you get the idea.
John Heiss / The Conservatory Contemporary Ensemble ("Music from the Charles Ives Festival, November 8-11, 1983," New England Conservatory Series, NEC 122, out of print LP) This recording includes:
Don't bother tracking down this rare souvenir LP for its performance of "The Unanswered Question." It's nothing special, and the recording is marred by audience coughs and other distracting noises.
And for something completely different, you might try...
Tomita / "Kosmos" ["The Unanswered Question" arranged for synthesizers] [RCA Victor 2RG 2616, coupled with works by John Williams ("Star Wars" main theme), Strauss ("2001: A Space Odyssey" / "Thus Spake Zarathustra"), Wagner ("Ride of the Valkyries"), Honegger, Rodrigo, Grieg, Bach and others]
If you're a purist, I have two words for you: "Stay away!" But if you enjoy some good CHEESE, this is worth checking out. I find myself laughing out loud every time I listen to the record. The "Star Wars" main theme is especially hilarious. Vintage Moog and Roland synthesizers set to a "sci-fi" theme. What more could you want? Don't forget to check out the super-cheesy, cool album cover too. For some reason, RCA cropped it when they released the CD. The original album cover is much better. (I picked up my pristine copy for $2.00 at a local second-hand record shop. I'll say it again: "Used vinyl rules!") For groovy pictures and more info, check out Tomita's website: http://listen.to/tomita. Seriously, I think that the Ives is the best work on the disc, along with the Bach. It isn't funny; just different--even more "spacey" than normal. Naturally, Tomita takes some liberties with Ives' score. But I think his touches are interesting. And I find myself wondering what Ives would have thought.
Other recordings of "The Unanswered Question" include:
Original text copyright © Scott Mortensen 2002-2006