Aureole etc.




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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Third Symphony 'The Camp Meeting' (c1904)
Washington's Birthday (from the Holidays Symphony) (1909)
Two Contemplations (c1906)
'Country Band March' (1905)
Overture and March '1776' (1906)
Northern Sinfonia/James Sinclair
Rec: All Saints Church, Quayside, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 19-20 June 2000 DDD
NAXOS 8.559087 [51.31]


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One of my rules of thumb for listening to, and enjoying the music of Charles Ives is to try not to play 'spot the tune.' If we fall into the trap of seeing this music as some kind of arrangement or transcription of hymn tunes or circus marches we will tend to miss much of its intellectual depth and sheer musicality. To be fair, Ives uses a number of such tunes in his Third Symphony - including 'What a Friend we have in Jesus' and 'Oh for a Thousand Tongues.' Yet these are a vehicle for expressing the inexpressible. This music is not primitive. It is not, I believe, even meant to be sentimental or full of pathos. All this is not to say that we should not enjoy a tune simply because it is or has been popular. Of course there will always be sentimental baggage with many of these musical quotations. It is simply that we must not allow an apparent banality to spoil our enjoyment of this excellent music.

The programme notes of this fine CD suggest that there is a 'programme' to Third Symphony. Now I do agree that this is superficially correct. Each of the three movements carries a subtitle:- Old Folks Gatherin'; Children’s Day and Communion. The very title of the Symphony is 'The Camp Meeting'. Yet I believe that what this symphony is actually doing is recreating spiritually and not pictorially the emotions engendered by the old time religion that Ives knew as a boy. It is not an attempt at painting a musical picture; it is not an attempt at preserving a number of well-known tunes. This work is perhaps the most subtle and introspective of the composer’s symphonic cycle. It was completed in 1904 but was not premiered until 1946. I enjoyed this recording by the Northern Sinfonia and appreciated the intimate almost chamber music qualities of the playing.

The Holidays Symphony is actually a collection of four somewhat disparate works that hold together simply by being musical evocation of American holidays. One movement is given here: Washington's Birthday. This stands very well on its own and impresses with its sharp contrast between winter night atmospherics and a barn dance complete with Jew’s harp.

This may not be great music but it certainly inhabits a unique sound world.

Perhaps Ives’ most famous and popular (if that is the correct word to use) work is 'The Unanswered Question.' This piece was paired with 'Central Park in the Dark,' and was given the overall title of 'Two Contemplations.' The Unanswered Question has a number of alternative titles and these perhaps give some clues to the work's meaning. These include 'a Cosmic Landscape,' a 'Contemplation of a Serious Matter' and 'The Unanswered Serious Question.' It was composed around 1906 but was subject to a number of revisions in the 1930s. It is written very much in the style of a collage; one piece of music being piled on top of another. Constant contrast of styles and a throwing together of disparate themes are what makes this work tick. It is all about 'cosmic drama’. We have here the silence of the Druids, the perennial question of existence and a number of attempts at an answer. This was music that was well ahead of its time. It took other avant-garde composers more than half a century to catch up. Yet to us this music is elemental; it is near perfect in its balance of sounds, structures and noise.

Central Park in the Dark is less demanding on our cosmological and philosophical understandings. It is quite simply an evocation of the moods and emotions engendered by a night-time view of Manhattan in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century. We are reminded of trains, popular songs, pianolas, ragtime and even a runaway horse - apparently. However the work is framed on either side by brooding string music summing up the darkness of the park against the bright lights of the city streets. The listener begins in the park, emerges into the city and retreats to the park. It is Yankee impressionism at its very best.

The Country Band March is pure fun. All the Ivesian characteristics are present: the well known tunes, two melodies playing at once and exuberant orchestration. Here the composer manages to glory in humouring the wrong notes of the players and the falling apart of the rhythmic momentum. Altogether an excellent piece to introduce the neophyte to this great American Composer.

The Overture and March '1776' is less well known. However it is really quite a classic. It was originally conceived as an overture to an opera about the 'revolutionary era'. It is very much a parody of the 'slow' march' and allows the composer to quote a number of well-known tunes, including the La Marseillaise. The quieter and slower parts of this work are actually quite profound.

Taken in the round, this is an excellent introduction to the orchestral music of Charles Ives. It explores quite a wide range of emotion; from the spirituality of old time religion at its best through to the festivities of Washington's Birthday and the strains of a country band playing at some local event. Here are all the Ives fingerprints presented in the space of a single CD. I am a bit disappointed that this otherwise great CD is so short on material. There is less than 50 minutes of music! Bad form for Naxos, I am afraid. However, the sound recording is good and the playing enthusiastic.

John France



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