This is an interestingly,
dare one say provocatively, planned
CD juxtaposing two works that are pretty
much at opposite poles of Ivesí creative
The First Symphony,
written between 1895 and 1898, was his
Yale graduation piece (though it may
not have been completed in time for
graduation). It is an enjoyable, though
prentice work. In its pages one can
sense the struggle within Ives who was
trying on the one hand to please the
academic establishment of Yale (and
his teacher, Horatio Parker in particular)
and, on the other hand, to be true to
himself and his naturally quirky view
One can easily discern
the influence of several romantic composers
including Brahms, Tchaikovsky and, especially
DvořŠk. There are many passages
where the Czech master comes to mind.
He would not have disowned the melody
with which the first movement opens,
I suspect. Equally, the long cor anglais
solo at the start of the second movement
takes us straight to the pages
of the New World symphony (could
Ives have known the work.?) But Ivesí
music is no mere pastiche. Every bar
breathes sincerity and just when you
think, "that passage sounds like
... " Ives throws in an unexpected
harmonic or rhythmic sidestep to remind
the listener that even at this early
stage his was still a unique voice.
The author of the liner
notes, Jan Swafford (the author, by
the way, of a magisterial biography
of Brahms) says of the symphony that
"it rambles, it lurches, it is
overstuffed with ideas." I agree,
but I also find it assured and endearing.
The first movement is vernally fresh.
The second movement does rather drift
along in places but still makes engaging
listening. The scherzo is a whirling,
scampering invention that finds the
Irish orchestra suitably light on their
collective feet. The infectious finale
bubbles with good humour and its conclusion
is reminiscent of Tchaikovsky in extrovert
The work has its weaknesses,
I have no doubt. However, itís a disarming
and enjoyable piece and James Sinclair,
a noted Ives scholar and interpreter,
leads the orchestra in a spirited and
well-played account that makes the best
possible case for the music.
Concerto sprang from Ivesí fascination
with men of letters and, specifically
from his admiration for Ralph Waldo
Emerson. Other writers who inspired
his work at around the same time were
Robert Browning and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Ives worked on a piano concerto inspired
by Emerson for some time but laid it
aside in 1911 and seems never to have
returned to it. Jan Swafford tells us
that the work "exists as a developed
draft, one or two stages from a completed
score." What is recorded here is
a performing version edited by the Ives
scholar, David G. Porter.
If the First Symphony
represents early, accessible Ives then
this concerto is at the opposite extreme.
As Swafford says, the music is "craggy,
dissonant, searching". It is music
that makes no compromises, takes no
prisoners and I have to confess that
I donít feel that I understand the piece
much more now than when I first began
the listening process.
It is cast in four
movements, which all follow each other
with no discernible break. Much of the
first movement is, to my ears, music
of conflict with the soloist pitted
against the orchestra. Swafford suggests
plausibly that the soloist represents
Emerson and the orchestra is the world
pitted against him. The piano part is,
for the most part, exceptionally percussive
and the music is jagged and dissonant.
Towards the end the tension eases somewhat
and the second movement begins with
a ruminative piano solo. However, after
scarcely one minute of this more easeful
music the powerful, craggy side of the
work reasserts itself.
The third movement
is more sanguine. It opens with a poetic
passage for piano and solo flute in
duet. Thereafter the music assumes a
reflective and questing character but
is still is predominantly lyrical. The
final movement opens with surging, potent
and aggressively dissonant music and
this holds sway for some time. However,
the ending is quite extraordinary with
the soloist playing alone. Here the
music is hushed, introspective and questioning.
Indeed, the listener is not quite sure
that the end has in fact been reached.
Has the music stopped? What conclusion
has Ives or the listener reached? Interestingly,
the notes tell us that Ives said that
he never felt the Emerson music was
finished, nor did he wish it to be.
This is knotty, disturbing,
difficult music that certainly does
not yield its secrets easily. As I say,
I do not yet understand it, nor am I
sure that I ever shall. On one level
itís an enterprising, not to say challenging
coupling for the symphony. On the other
hand, Iím not sure how impulse purchasers
who are new to Ives will regard it.
This is one reason why I think Naxos
might have been better advised to have
reversed the playing order of the CD
and to have put the symphony first,
not second. The other, aesthetic reason
is that if the concerto had been placed
second there would have been no danger
of the bright and breezy opening bars
of the symphony intruding into the listenerís
contemplation of the echoing into silence
with which the concerto ends.
So far as I can judge
Alan Feinberg gives a commanding and
idiomatic account of what Iím sure is
a fiendishly difficult solo part. James
Sinclair and the orchestra support him
manfully. The sound in both works is
very good, reporting lots of detail
within a convincing overall sound picture.
The notes are useful and informative.
Though Naxos donít
claim it as such I think this may well
be the recording debut of the concerto,
in which case this CD will be particularly
self-recommending to Ives fans and I
doubt theyíll be disappointed. Iím not
so sure how much appeal the whole disc
will be to the non-specialist collector.
However, at the Naxos price those with
an enquiring ear can experiment for
a modest outlay.