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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Universe Symphony (1874-1951)
Realized and completed (1974-1993) by Larry Austin (b.1930)
Symphony No.2 (1897-1901)
Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Michael Stern
Recorded live at Hermann Neuberger Sporthalle, Völkingen, Germany, May 24, 1998 (Universe) and at Grosser Sendesaal des SR, November 16-18, 1999 (No.2)
COL LEGNO WWE 1CD 20074 [74’52]

Here at last is an alternative to the worthy Centaur recording of the Universe Symphony that set Ivesians chattering a decade ago. As everyone should be aware, this is a ‘realization’ by composer Larry Austin of a thick wad of sketches left by Ives, as Deryck Cooke did with Mahler 10 and Antony Payne with Elgar 3. The difference here is that Ives virtually left an open invitation for ‘somebody’ to carry out his aspirations for the work: ‘…in case I don’t get to finishing this, somebody might like to try to work out the idea’. That somebody was Larry Austin and, rather like Cooke, working on this piece became an all-consuming passion for twenty years, with this recording representing what appear to be his final thoughts on it.

Listening afresh leaves one open-mouthed in astonishment. However much is conjectural (and one has to admit it’s certainly a great deal) the end result, though never easy or comfortable, displays a breadth and sheer untamed wildness that befit the inspiration. If you are of the opinion that Ives was a true visionary, a lone original way ahead of his time, this version will come as manna from heaven. If you believe that that he was a wacky amateur, that view may, unfortunately, also be confirmed.

The Symphony runs for around 36 minutes without a break, is scored for multiple orchestras and is in three broad sections: Past – from Chaos, Formation of the Waters and Mountains; Present – Earth and the Firmament, Evolution in Nature and Humanity; Future – Heaven, the Rise of all to the Spiritual. Titles like these may have you thinking of the wilder excesses of Scriabin, or latterly of the nature soundscapes of Hovhaness, but what emerges is nothing like that. The longest section is undoubtedly the first, a 20-odd minute build-up that Austin now subtitles ‘Life Pulse Prelude’. It starts in the very bowels of the orchestra, and is basically a slow, rhythmically-phased crescendo for massive percussion ensemble. The strict tolling of a solitary bell keeps things in check, but around this pulse are woven dense, often aleatoric sub-patterns that constantly shift and grow. The effect is very avant-garde, though curiously comforting and sometimes redolent of early minimalism.

The idea of different instrumental combinations representing gas clouds, rock formations etc., and using any harmonic means to achieve this (quarter tones, chord clusters, collage effect) in 1911 is quite unbelievable. The later sections of the work display great timbral variety, though some listeners may not get beyond the novelty value of Ives’s vision. It is a difficult experience in some ways, and demands giving one’s self over to it in a suitable frame of mind, rather as one might do with Morton Feldman. The sceptic may feel life’s too short to bother, but I believe it is worth the effort.

In contrast to all this dissonant excess, the Second Symphony is a doddle. It still represents all that’s good and bad about the composer, but in so much more accessible a language. Its roots are firmly in the 19th Century, and there are the by now familiar references to hymn tunes and popular marches, as well as lashings of Bach, Brahms and Wagner (among others), all building towards a beautifully timed ‘wrong note’ chord at the end. Pure madness, but so convincingly done as to be impossible to switch off.

Recordings and performances here are good. The Universe Symphony is obviously the main draw, and this is taken from a Saarbrücken Radio broadcast. Michael Stern keeps a firm hand on proceedings, ably helped by his four co-conductors, one of whom is Austin himself. This lends an air of authority to the venture, and the whole event is generally well captured by the engineers, though this is one to have probably been there for, visually as well as aurally. Stern’s Second will not sway those loyal to Tilson-Thomas or Bernstein, but makes a very generous filler. A must for Ivesians, or those with a penchant for something different – very different.

Tony Haywood

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