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Charles IVES (1874-1954)

Symphony No. 1 (1898)
Symphony No. 2 (1902)
Symphony No. 3 The Camp Meeting (1907)
Symphony No. 4 (1916)
A Symphony: New England Holidays (1912)
The Unanswered Question (revised version)
The Unanswered Question (original version)
Central Park in the Dark

Hymns (as quoted in Fourth Symphony): Sweet by and by; Beulah Land (organ solo); Ye Christian Heralds; Jesus, Lover of my Soul; Nearer, My God, to Thee () []
Chicago SO (1, 4, New England, Question, Park)
Concertgebouw Orchestra (2, 3)
conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas
Mary Sauer (piano) (4)
Richard Webster (organ) (hymns)
Adolph Herseth (trumpet) (Question)
members of Chicago Symphony Chorus/Margaret Hillis (hymns)
rec: no recording dates or locations given
SONY ESSENTIAL CLASSICS SB3K87746 [3CDs: 77.09+60.59+63.04]


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Sony have been reticent about quoting recording dates and locations in their budget Essential Classics series. Surely they do not fear giving this information? Basic information about the age of these tapes remains under the bushel! From external research these discs derive from digital tapes made in the 1980s and 1990s.

With that gripe out of the way, I must say that Sony have done themselves proud in the insert booklet. This comprises the conductor's own notes and those of Ives scholar Paul C. Echols.

All Ives' principal orchestral works are here. The First Symphony was written as his Yale graduation exercise in 1898. It would not be out of place in Sterling's German Romantic era series alongside Wetz, Draesecke, Staehle and the others. There is some delicious woodwind music warmly accentuated by microphone placement as well as much animated writing which veers from Mozart, to Schumann, to Brahms who is certainly in the ascendant here. The Fourth Symphony stands at omega to the First's alpha. It is a work so dissimilar in sound and language as to make you wonder if it comes from the same composer. The same drastic gear change can be heard between Elliott Carter's First Symphony and Pocahontas and his Symphony for Three Orchestras. The Ives work suggests a rolling, bursting, solar storm; chaotic destructive elements rampage while prayerful meditations drift past in a Bergian iridescence that remains enigmatically unsensual. His simpler style floats free in the third movement fugue which rises away from the boiling diffuseness of the first two movements into a spiritual firmament in which the writing might easily have been a transcription of an organ piece. The trombone 'benediction' in the last pages of this movement must surely have spoken to the young Alan Hovhaness. The finale returns to the slow-motion shatter and drifting motes of the first two movements. It rises at 6.54 to a raging ragged wound in which the listener seems to be held over a chasm to stare unblinking at horrors. This resolves into a long-sustained dew-glimmering mist in which jazz, hymns and angelic ministration move in a miasmic dream redolent of the world of Havergal Brian in his eighth symphony.

To stay with the Chicago orchestra we skip to the third disc. The so-called Holidays Symphony is as much a symphony as say Sibelius's Four Lemminkainen Legends. It was written between 1893 and 1912. Its tonality is probing and poignant, predominantly a work of quietude … of contemplation. Place this work in company with the Fourth Symphony. It is a work of the same ilk as Havergal Brian's symphonies of the 1950s as well as certain Brian works of the 1920s such as the suite from the opera The Tigers (recorded by Leopold Hager on Forlane).

This set is indispensable to those Ivesians in that it gives both versions of the Unanswered Question. Almost pulseless pp strings intone a heart-frozen simulacrum of the Tallis Fantasia. Over this intimation of eternity a trumpet (played by the Chicagoan's principal Adolph Herseth who made such an imperious contribution to Chandos's Järvi version of the Scriabin Poem of Ecstasy) gently asks the question of existence. The two versions differ in small details of woodwind and trumpet line. This is not a work of voluptuous passions. Echoes include the Barber Adagio; an emotion-drained contemplation prophetic of the ruins and carnage of nuclear conflict. In it we can hear something of Penderecki, Arvo Pärt's Cantus and Gorecki's Third Symphony. The Question's soul-mate is Central Park in the Dark which evokes the sounds to be heard by a solitary sitting on park bench at night in the park. Rags and shreds of material make an appearance and then disappear: a singer, a street car, a runaway horse, a ragtime piano (4.51 - as if predictive of the popular music interjections in PMD's St Thomas Wake), a fire engine, a band, the hubbub from a casino.

The Chicago orchestra sounds a shade more refined in the violin section on CD3 (Holidays) than on CD1 (1 and 4). This must have been a function of the recording location or microphone array; whatever the reason the strings have a noticeable smoothness on CD3.

A change of orchestra for symphonies 2 and 3. The Concertgebouw field a refined violin sound. The Second Symphony is brilliant, raucous, 1812-brash, bumptious and uproarious with the glories of the Dutch horns. There is a discordant brass ‘shout’ to end the work. The Third Symphony threads of hymns and popular tunes into the sound web which is essentially Brahms-derived but extruded and dislocated to accommodate dissonance. This is incredibly forward-looking proto-Bergian music.

Ives was one of the great originals but beyond that he had much to say and his evolution from the Dvořákian simplicity of the First Symphony to the wild dissonance of the Fourth is fascinating to follow and rewarding musically.

The first disc includes, by way of a scholarly gesture, five of the hymns quoted in the Fourth Symphony. Indeed this set uses the latest scholarly editions for all seven pieces.

These recordings still sound very well indeed and are not afflicted with the treble-emphatic qualities which continue to haunt CBS tapes from the 1950s and 1960s.

There isn’t really any competition for this set. Mehta’s recordings of the symphonies are a partial survey. The Bernstein and Stokowski box on CBS is no longer accessible but, in any event, while rambunctious enough, lacks the aural delights, transparency and detailing of these modern recordings. A self-selecting first choice without doubt. I do beg Sony to issue the Carl Ruggles orchestral set in the same series and can we also hope for a revival of Schrecker’s Irrelohe in Essential Classics?

Rob Barnett

"I have soime of the original CDs, some of which contain recording venue/date information.

Symphonies 1 and 4 (and the hymns accompanying Symphony No 4) were recorded at Medinah Temple, Chicago on 15 & 17 April, 1989.
(Original catalogue number SK 44939)

Symphony No 3 and Orchestral Set No 2 were recorded in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. No recording date is given but the recording
(MK 37823) was published in 1985.

The New England Holidays Symphony, Central Park in the Dark and the two versions of The Unanswered Question were all issued together
(MK 42381) and again were recorded in Medinah Temple, Chicago in 1986."

Hope this is some help


John Quinn


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