Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Music Webmaster Len Mullenger:

Charles IVES
Universe Symphony (1911-51) *
Orchestral Set No. 2
The Unanswered Question

C.C.M. Percussion Ensemble
C.C.M. Chamber Choir
Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra/Gerhard Samuel
* rec 29 Jan 1994
rec 30-31 Oct 1993
all rec University of Cincinnati
CENTAUR CRC 2205 [62.04]
   Amazon US

The pre-eminent work and the main draw of this disc is Larry Austin's completion of the Universe Symphony. If completed by the composer it would have been his fifth symphony. He worked on it with some resolve between 1911 and 1915 but left it, resuming work in 1927 and 1928, and afterwards toying with the piece adding a note here and there until circa 1951.

The works on this disc present Ives the experimentalist and anyone who has come to Ives through the first and second symphony will need to consider whether this very different music is for them.

The Symphony is given as realised and completed by the composer, Larry Austin. It is in three sections played without interruption by seven orchestras. The first (From Chaos, formation of the Waters and Mountains) announces itself with a held-note rumbling murmur deep in the orchestra over this a-rhythmic quiet bell sounds stab repeatedly whisper-quiet. The whole effect is suggestive of Arvo Pärt's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten and the most mystically minimalist pages of Alan Hovhaness's symphonies (Vishnu and Mountains and Rivers Without End). This is avant-garde work with an increasingly nihilistic and discontinuous complexity of percussion sounds (xylophone, drums, metal sheets and gong) coming to dominate the landscape in a patterned gamelan collage. The second section Earth and the Firmament - evolution in nature and humanity (23.30) presents shards of figures given out by the brass while strings sidle and sway and the final section (Heaven the rise of all to the Spiritual) shudders and shouts violently all the while punctuated by apparently aleatoric percussion. Trumpet sounds call out towards the end as if in sympathy with Scriabin's hopelessly aspirant ambitions. A single tolling bell ends the work in simplicity.

The notes give a detailed map of Austin's argument for the finished result. We can leave it to the researchers and Ives academics to come to a view on 'authenticity'. For our purposes this is a work for those of avant-garde tastes and those who must have everything of Ives. Anyone at all attracted by the Ives Fourth Symphony will need to have this disc.

It must remain contentious (and unknowable) whether the work heard here was ever the work intended by Ives. Similar points can be made about Elgar 3, Scriabin's own Universe Epic (as completed by Nemtin and recorded on BMG-Melodiya and further extended on Decca as conducted by Ashkenazy), Bartók's Viola Concerto and Mahler 10. The arguments will be entertaining for the academics.

Orchestral Suite No. 2 is in three movements with the first an elegy to our forefathers out of the same 'cooker' as The Universe Symphony. It is mystical and a window opened out into a slowly swirling chaos. The second movement is a shrapnel burst of popular tunes, ragtime and revivalist hymns. Like Frank Bridge's Lament the last movement (From Hanover Square North at the end of a Tragic day) is inspired by the sinking of the liner Lusitania on 7 May 1915. The least inaccessible of the three movements - it surges in melancholy, swaying with experience and held in check by the Gospel hymn In The Sweet Bye and Bye. It catches pictures of folk sadness, a train station, an organ grinder and a salvation army band. I also thought I detected a hint of green oceanic depths and a slow sinking (6.35 onwards).

The Unanswered Question is an unmissable experience. Its bed of string sound quiet and pregnant suggests Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia and perhaps Barber's Adagio. The woodwind and brass contributions are discordant and Druidical with a touch of Copland's Quiet City and Hovhaness's Prayer of Saint Gregory further disrupted by the Messiaenic chatter of birdsong.

A fine piece of work by all concerned and a tribute to Centaur's judgement that these events are in their catalogue.

Rob Barnett

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