> IVES symphonies Mehta [JL]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Symphony No.1
Symphony No.2
Variations on ‘America’ (orch. William Schumann)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta
Recorded Los Angeles: May 1972-1975
DECCA ELOQUENCE 466 806-2 [74:23]


Anyone contemplating buying this disc needs to know of Decca’s complete set of the four Ives Symphonies in its bargain "double disc" series. It includes the same Mehta performance of the First Symphony (but not his No. 2) and is readily available. More of that later.

The first two symphonies are early works completed in 1898 and 1902 respectively, neither receiving their premieres for half a century. Fortunately Ives lived to hear them– but only just. Not that he needed to: he always claimed he could hear exactly what he had written in his mind’s ear.

It is only in the Second Symphony that the voice of the Ives we know begins to emerge. The First is a student work written when he was at Yale, spending three years on it off and on. It was submitted as his main thesis and as such would have needed to please the Professor, Horatio William Parker, himself a composer. Parker had tried to knock out of his student a tendency to eccentricity and innovation, something Ives had inherited from his musician father. The symphony is a superb example of toeing the line.

When listening to the early major efforts of composers it is hard to resist playing the game of ‘spot the influences’. In this case the names Tchaikovsky and sometimes Wagner come up (Ives claimed not to be fond of either), but what struck me most forcibly this time around is a really pervading Dvořák influence. This is apt, or maybe ironic, because Dvořák had arrived in New York in 1892 to take over the Conservatory and one of the briefs given to him by rich benefactor Mrs Jeannette Thurber was to found a national school of composition. The Dvořák influence is clearly apparent in much of the skilful orchestration but more endemic is the fundamentally melodic approach to symphonic writing rather than one that is Beethovenianly motivic. To pull this off you need, like Dvořák, a gift for tune writing and the confidence to flaunt it. Ives has and does. For example, the work plunges straight into a winner of a tune (in a similar way to the glorious opening of’ Dvořák’s Third). In the second movement Adagio beautiful melody is the key, even if it does, with the cor anglais opening, embarrassingly derive from the famous adagio from Dvořák’s New World which had been premiered in New York five years earlier. Now it is this sort of thing that has led to descriptions of the symphony such as "pleasant but disconnected set of romantic clichés". Personally, I had far rather listen to this ingenuous work than many symphonies by more mature composers that are generally considered more worthy.

Mehta’s performance really does help the work to convince. He takes it upon himself to cut out most repeats and I suspect this may be a good thing in curbing youthful symphonic incontinence. But there is a conviction in the performance that always keeps things moving and the playing of the Los Angeles Philharmonic strings will, I am sure, disarm "romantic cliché" cynics. It is in this department that, for example, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra cannot compete in their Naxos disc of the Second Symphony.

The Second is a very different work in spite of its romanticisms, being recognisably Ives with its incorporation of well-known American tunes. In the second of the five movements, which really sounds like a first movement allegro following a slow introduction that is the actual first, he weaves in a civil war song, a hymn and a college song. In the last movement the technique is taken further still. Mehta’s performance is as good as any on disc and more convincing, for example, than Dohnányi’s with the Cleveland Orchestra. Which brings me back to the issue of Decca’s set of the four symphonies.

In the set, Dohnányi takes the Second and Fourth Symphonies with Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields taking the Third. Mehta’s First is probably the best performance and Marriner’s the least successful. Those wishing to come to grips with Ives’ symphonic output should seriously consider it as an excellent buy (two substantial Ives fillers are included). Alternatively, what the Mehta disc under discussion here provides is very good performances of the first two symphonies on one disc with the popular William Schumann orchestration of Variations on ‘America’ as a filler. Over to you.
John Leeman

Comment from a reader

Thank you for the excellent work that you do on your site. I'm a regular

I thought I might also point out that the above review
contains a few errors.

John Leeman, claims that Ives heard the premieres of both his First and Second symphonies. This isn't true. He only heard the premiere of the Second. (Actually, Ives only heard it on the radio, as he declined to attend the actual performance.) With regards to the First, Ives died in 1954 and the this symphony was premiered in 1966. So he never heard a complete performance of this work, only individual movements.

Also, the author of the review mistakenly claims that von Dohnanyi recorded the Second symphony in the "Decca Double" release. This is incorrect. The version of the Second Symphony released on the Australian Eloquence disc is the same as the Decca Double release. Both are by Mehta and the LAPO.

One last item worth mentioning: Mehta's reading of the First is very fine. However, the reviewer didn't mention that the symphony has a substantial cutin the final movement. This may affect some persons' decision whether to purchase this particular disc.

Scott Mortensen
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.


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