> Charles Ives - An American Journey [GH]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
An American Journey
From the Steeples and the Mountains; The things our fathers Loved; The Pond (Remembrance); Memories; Charlie Rutlage; The Circus Band; Three Places in New England; In Flanders Fields; They are there; Tom Sails Away; Fugue from Symphony No. 4; Psalm 100; Serenity; General William Booth enters into Heaven; The Unanswered Question.
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas
Recorded live at the Davis Symphony Hall, San Francisco, September and October 1999
RCA-BMG 09026 63703-2 [64.49]


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This CD takes you on a fascinating journey indeed, through the eclectic and at times bizarre imagination of America’s first great pioneering composer and surely one of the great originals ever.

In Michael Tilson Thomas the music has a perfect advocate. He recorded Ives’ Symphonies for Sony in the 1980s and has put on most of Ives’ output regularly for over 20 years. It is apt therefore that he should be at the helm. His choice of works here recorded live and superbly captured in a brilliant acoustic is a mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar. In the first category we have ‘Three Places in New England’; in the second, at least to me, the song ‘Charlie Rutlage’ - a cowboy song with quite an extraordinary sting in its middle!

If you are unfamiliar with Ives, let me indicate for you a few signposts.

First he is, as I have come to realize now for some years, a nostalgic composer. This is also pointed out in the fascinating CD booklet notes by Jan Swafford. Practically all of his music has some reminiscence of his childhood and upbringing. He lives in an impressionist world where he can flit in and out of memories and reality in a mere moment. His poem ‘Tom Sails Away' begins "Scenes from my childhood are with me / I’m in the lot behind our house up on the hill".

Track 1 ‘From the Steeples and the Mountains’ is a typical example of an Ives structure. Scored for brass and bells and dating from 1901, it could be called an experiment in ‘quadrasonic’ sound. It starts almost imperceptibly with distant bells. The brass enter, at first tentatively then increasing in contrapuntal intensity and in volume so that the music reaches, after just three an a half minutes, a massive climax and then disappears quickly leaving just an echo behind. ‘The Unanswered Question’ has a similar plan. Quiet strings enter, instead of the brass, then a single trumpet call asking the question (what is the meaning of life?) a response from the woodwind, at first gentle and then increasingly agitated reaching a climax thirty seconds from the end and then collapsing into the bed of string harmonies, here representing the unfathomable wisdom of God. This wonderful piece ends the CD. A similar plan can be heard in the last of the ‘Three Places in New England’ with its tumultuous climax. How good it is here to have the chorus singing instead of the option of having their unison melody played on cellos.

As to the performances I would mention ‘General William Booth enters into heaven’ for chorus, baritone solo and orchestra. Quite simply this is its best ever recording but there are some disappointing moments. The speed could be steadier and the bass drum more emphatic for "Booth led boldly with his BIG bass drum". Then, the baritone soloist seems to be too closely microphoned which sometimes masks fascinating orchestral detail for instance some slithery woodwind writing at, significantly, "Walking lepers followed rank on rank".

‘The Circus Band’ must be a nightmare to record because, for its last few pages, it seethes with detail. In the score a part marked piccolo (sic) is actually texted. I have heard this part performed by a baritone solo, which is quite fun but normally fairly inaudible. The chorus should be congratulated here for their wonderful diction, which cuts through the orchestral texture. ‘Serenity’ is a solo song, certainly, but Tilson Thomas surely missed a trick here by not given it to the unison chorus to sing; an option which Ives himself suggested. This would have given it a more sonorous effect.

Ives was a deeply religious man and it is his experimental Psalm settings that meant much to him. Psalm 100 is represented here (what a pity there isn’t another one.) Collins Classics (now deleted) recorded a disc of Ives’ Psalm settings (Collins 14792) and it is quickly apparent that Ives’ beliefs permeate much of his music. Indeed he often wrote his own words, as for example the anti-war poem ‘Tom sails away’ already mentioned. In the same category comes the foot-tapping ‘They are there’ which takes the opposite view with its line "They are fighting for the right? But when it comes to might/They are there".

In comparison with other recordings, there is, of course, no other disc like this. If you want the ‘Three Places’ then you could look at the Cleveland Orchestra under Dohnanyi (Decca 443 776-2) or if you are mostly interested in ‘The Unanswered Question’ then you could track down The Gulbenkian Orchestra under Swierczewski on Nimbus (NI 5316). But my advice is to snap up this recording and really enjoy yourself.

Gary Higginson

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