Sony have been reticent about quoting recording dates
and locations in their budget Essential Classics series. Surely they
do not fear giving this information? Basic information about the age
of these tapes remains under the bushel! From external research these
discs derive from digital tapes made in the 1980s and 1990s.
With that gripe out of the way, I must say that Sony
have done themselves proud in the insert booklet. This comprises the
conductor's own notes and those of Ives scholar Paul C. Echols.
All Ives' principal orchestral works are here. The
First Symphony was written as his Yale graduation exercise in
1898. It would not be out of place in Sterling's German Romantic era
series alongside Wetz, Draesecke, Staehle and the others. There is some
delicious woodwind music warmly accentuated by microphone placement
as well as much animated writing which veers from Mozart, to Schumann,
to Brahms who is certainly in the ascendant here. The Fourth Symphony
stands at omega to the First's alpha. It is a work so dissimilar
in sound and language as to make you wonder if it comes from the same
composer. The same drastic gear change can be heard between Elliott
Carter's First Symphony and Pocahontas and his Symphony for
Three Orchestras. The Ives work suggests a rolling, bursting, solar
storm; chaotic destructive elements rampage while prayerful meditations
drift past in a Bergian iridescence that remains enigmatically unsensual.
His simpler style floats free in the third movement fugue which rises
away from the boiling diffuseness of the first two movements into a
spiritual firmament in which the writing might easily have been a transcription
of an organ piece. The trombone 'benediction' in the last pages of this
movement must surely have spoken to the young Alan Hovhaness. The finale
returns to the slow-motion shatter and drifting motes of the first two
movements. It rises at 6.54 to a raging ragged wound in which the listener
seems to be held over a chasm to stare unblinking at horrors. This resolves
into a long-sustained dew-glimmering mist in which jazz, hymns and angelic
ministration move in a miasmic dream redolent of the world of Havergal
Brian in his eighth symphony.
To stay with the Chicago orchestra we skip to the third
disc. The so-called Holidays Symphony is as much a symphony as
say Sibelius's Four Lemminkainen Legends. It was written between
1893 and 1912. Its tonality is probing and poignant, predominantly a
work of quietude … of contemplation. Place this work in company with
the Fourth Symphony. It is a work of the same ilk as Havergal Brian's
symphonies of the 1950s as well as certain Brian works of the 1920s
such as the suite from the opera The Tigers (recorded by Leopold
Hager on Forlane).
This set is indispensable to those Ivesians in that
it gives both versions of the Unanswered Question. Almost pulseless
pp strings intone a heart-frozen simulacrum of the Tallis
Fantasia. Over this intimation of eternity a trumpet (played by
the Chicagoan's principal Adolph Herseth who made such an imperious
contribution to Chandos's Järvi version of the Scriabin Poem
of Ecstasy) gently asks the question of existence. The two versions
differ in small details of woodwind and trumpet line. This is not a
work of voluptuous passions. Echoes include the Barber Adagio;
an emotion-drained contemplation prophetic of the ruins and carnage
of nuclear conflict. In it we can hear something of Penderecki, Arvo
Pärt's Cantus and Gorecki's Third Symphony. The Question's
soul-mate is Central Park in the Dark which evokes the sounds
to be heard by a solitary sitting on park bench at night in the park.
Rags and shreds of material make an appearance and then disappear: a
singer, a street car, a runaway horse, a ragtime piano (4.51 - as if
predictive of the popular music interjections in PMD's St Thomas
Wake), a fire engine, a band, the hubbub from a casino.
The Chicago orchestra sounds a shade more refined in
the violin section on CD3 (Holidays) than on CD1 (1 and 4). This
must have been a function of the recording location or microphone array;
whatever the reason the strings have a noticeable smoothness on CD3.
A change of orchestra for symphonies 2 and 3. The Concertgebouw
field a refined violin sound. The Second Symphony is brilliant, raucous,
1812-brash, bumptious and uproarious with the glories of the Dutch horns.
There is a discordant brass ‘shout’ to end the work. The Third Symphony
threads of hymns and popular tunes into the sound web which is essentially
Brahms-derived but extruded and dislocated to accommodate dissonance.
This is incredibly forward-looking proto-Bergian music.
Ives was one of the great originals but beyond that
he had much to say and his evolution from the Dvořákian
simplicity of the First Symphony to the wild dissonance of the Fourth
is fascinating to follow and rewarding musically.
The first disc includes, by way of a scholarly gesture,
five of the hymns quoted in the Fourth Symphony. Indeed this set uses
the latest scholarly editions for all seven pieces.
These recordings still sound very well indeed and are
not afflicted with the treble-emphatic qualities which continue to haunt
CBS tapes from the 1950s and 1960s.
There isn’t really any competition for this set. Mehta’s
recordings of the symphonies are a partial survey. The Bernstein and
Stokowski box on CBS is no longer accessible but, in any event, while
rambunctious enough, lacks the aural delights, transparency and detailing
of these modern recordings. A self-selecting first choice without doubt.
I do beg Sony to issue the Carl Ruggles orchestral set in the same series
and can we also hope for a revival of Schrecker’s Irrelohe in
"I have soime of the original CDs, some of which contain recording
Symphonies 1 and 4 (and the hymns accompanying Symphony No 4) were
recorded at Medinah Temple, Chicago on 15 & 17 April, 1989.
(Original catalogue number SK 44939)
Symphony No 3 and Orchestral Set No 2 were recorded in the Concertgebouw,
Amsterdam. No recording date is given but the recording
(MK 37823) was published in 1985.
The New England Holidays Symphony, Central Park in the Dark and the
two versions of The Unanswered Question were all issued together
(MK 42381) and again were recorded in Medinah Temple, Chicago in 1986."
Hope this is some help