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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Symphony no.3 ‘The Camp Meeting’* (1901-1904) [21:58]
Ragtime Dances (1899-1904) [12:08]+
Robert Browning Overture (1908-1912) [26:03]**
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken/Michael Stern
rec. Saarbrücken, Funkhaus Halberg, Musikstudio I, March 23, 2000*, May 19,2000+, November 15-16, 1999**

COL LEGNO WWE1CD20225 [60:09]

 


The premature death of Gustav Mahler in 1911 has retrospectively provoked a great deal of discussion regarding the possible influence that he would have had upon musical development in the early twentieth century. Much of this hinges upon the enigmatic, uncompleted Tenth Symphony which appears, emotionally at least, to have marked a radical departure from the world-weary, desperate Ninth Symphony. Then there was his championing of the early works of Schoenberg. The younger composer is, of course, now regarded as one of the key figures in the history of twentieth century music; to what extent he would have gained this status were it not for Mahler’s advocacy is debatable, but it is certainly tantalising to think that the entire course of musical development could have been very different had Mahler not been around.

I mention this only because, had he have lived longer, Mahler may well have given the (then) largely unknown Charles Ives the same kind of exposure. It is well known that Ives was a successful businessman who simply composed in his free time, and that by the turn of the twentieth century he had already dabbled with the ‘innovations’ that a decade or two later would become the calling cards of composers such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky. In what is, quite possibly, one of the most important defining factors in the development of music in the last century - in the sense that it had absolutely no discernable effect - Mahler, shortly before leaving New York, picked up a manuscript copy of Ives’ Third Symphony, fully intending to perform it in Europe. Alas fate dealt its third hammer-blow and Ives had to wait a further five decades for his premiere. But imagine what may have happened had Mahler championed this work; an immediate interest in Ives’ works?  World-wide exposure to new ‘avant-garde’ techniques? All before Stravinsky even considered composing The Rite of Spring. Indeed, that notorious premiere may have been slightly less rowdy had the audience already spent a couple of years digesting Ives’ more adventurous output.

So, you see, the premature death of Gustav Mahler in 1911 actually had a much greater impact upon musical life in the twentieth century than most people realise. These days Ives’ music is less shocking; his overdue ‘boom’ in the 1960s has influenced so many composers that there is a cosy sense of familiarity about his more outrageous work. Personally, I find his Second Symphony one of his most challenging works; it is possibly one of the most beautiful and touching things ever written by an American composer, achingly naïve in its attempt to depict small-town life yet aware that his rose-tinted view of an apparently innocent age was rapidly becoming a thing of the past. But the juxtaposition of quotations from central European classics (Brahms, Wagner, Dvorak, Beethoven, Bach) and quintessentially American folk-tunes in such a conservative, tonal context does prove, for this listener at least, something of a stumbling block.

In my view, the Third Symphony suffers not at all from similar problems. It is the shortest, most intimate of his essays in the genre. It is also, paradoxically, perhaps the most frequently recorded - perhaps because of its modest orchestration - and most critically overlooked. But given due consideration it emerges as Ives’ only bona fide symphonic masterpiece. Yes, it is still influenced by the European classics; yes, there is a discernable ‘American’ness’ to it. Here, though, Ives is simply being himself. It is one of the few American works (one of the others being Barber’s Violin Concerto) that sums up the perhaps clichéd image of a golden American evening, sitting on the porch with a lemonade … If you’re thinking Harper Lee rather than Tennessee Williams you’re probably along the right lines. A bit like the American equivalent of sitting outside a country pub watching the local cricket team and sipping a nice real Ale.

For those who may have found the opening paragraphs of this review somewhat hard to stomach - could Mahler really have been interested in Ives? - it is perhaps important to realise just how similar they were as composers. The net effect of their works may be entirely different, but the elements, the ‘building blocks’ are remarkably similar; namely, they both took elements from popular music, folk music, and their own feverish imaginations to convey what they believed to be human experience. ‘The Symphony must convey everything; it must embrace the world’ Mahler may or may not have said to Sibelius. With Mahler’s symphonies you get the impression that he probably meant what he said but, at the end of the day, there are limits. Ives takes this dictum to extremes, in certain works seemingly attempting to embrace the entire universe - well, in the Universe Symphony at least - albeit only those elements that could be viewed from his Connecticut backyard. And so alongside the references to the Europeans, the sly quotations from American folk-music, there are frequent examples of Ives recycling his own music. Much of the Third Symphony is based upon the composer’s earlier organ works … and before anyone starts laying charges of compositional laziness, let us remember that Mahler managed to compose at least four symphonies from a previous song cycle. That said, it is certainly Ives’ most cogent symphonic work and receives a beautiful performance here.

What I missed in this performance can loosely be summed up by the word ‘Bernstein’. I am not one to claim that Bernstein was a faultless conductor of Ives. Both of his commercial recordings of the Second Symphony must be rated as classics; the second, and my personal favourite, forms part of an Ives anthology that must be the ultimate Ives ‘starter pack’ on DG 429 229-2. But, aside from the small matter of cutting quite sizable chunks from the final movement and paying scant regard to Ives’ tempo indications, Bernstein also developed his own way of interpreting the final few notes - and I’m choosing my words here very carefully so as not to spoil the surprise for the uninitiated - that rather changes the effect that Ives probably had in mind. Bernstein’s only - as far as I’m aware - recording of the Third Symphony was made for CBS in 1965 and is available at mid-price coupled with his first recording of the Second Symphony and an illuminating, thirteen minute lecture about Ives (Sony SMK 60202). Bernstein had at his disposal the New York Philharmonic. Michael Stern’s Saarbrucken Radio Orchestra do an exemplary job, displaying a high level of virtuosity and a really weighty sonority when needed. But the sense of discovery in that NYPO recording is lacking. Make no mistake, this is certainly a very fine performance; it is just that Ives’ vision is so personal, so uniquely ‘American’ that very few can contend.

The couplings are also very fine. The ‘Robert Browning Overture’ is a seminal classic; it has been recorded dozens of times, mostly to very high standards, and comes across particularly well here. Had this work been performed in place of The Rite of Spring at that famous 1913 concert, I fear that there would have been few left alive to riot. For me, the Ragtime Dances are the main attraction of this disc. They were, it must be admitted, completely new to me. And what a surprise they were, mixing jazz, bitonality and neoclassicism. But then you look at the composition dates (1899-1904) and realise that Jazz hadn’t really been invented, Ragtime was still in its infancy, neo-classicism as a school of thought wouldn’t rear its head for a couple of decades and bitonality was simply something that happened when an orchestra couldn’t decide upon a unanimous tuning system. It is simply astonishing to think that someone who languished in obscurity until the 1950s was composing such music in the nineteenth century. The nearest comparison that comes to mind is George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony; Ives isn’t quite as off-the-wall as Antheil, but he was operating a few decades earlier. Nevertheless, the combination of spiky, rhythmic passages with a sickly and somewhat parodical sentimentality pretty much lays the foundations for Antheil’s seminal masterpiece. Although he had probably never heard any Ives.

Collecting Ives recordings is problematic; so often conductors and record labels fixate upon the symphonies - which can be bought in pretty much any combination now - and so general Ives compilations are scarce. The aforementioned Bernstein/DG disc is without a doubt the finest Ives record ever made. If you can find it then I’d thoroughly recommend Morton Gould’s premiere recording of the First Symphony (composed 1895-98, first performed 1946, first recorded 1965!), coupled with various Ives works including the ubiquitous ‘Robert Browning Overture’ (BMG Navigator 74321 292462). Alongside those two records, I would thoroughly recommend the present issue; sound quality is finely balanced and the annotation more than adequate. Any of these three make for a perfect introduction to Ives’ unique genius, representing as they do both his conservative - in the case of the symphonies - and more radical styles.

Given the huge number of short pieces by Ives, it does seem a shame that Col Legno only give us an hour of music; surely there was space for those two other seminal Ives classics ‘Central Park in the Dark’ and ‘The Unanswered Question’? But then we’d be back in Bernstein territory …

Owen E. Walton

 

 


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