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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Emerson Concerto for piano and orchestra* (reconstructed by David G. Porter) [24í53"]
Symphony No. 1 [45í36"]
*Alan Feinberg (piano)
National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/James Sinclair
Recorded: RTE Concert Hall, Dublin, Eire, 25 September 2002. DDD
NAXOS 8.559175 [70í29"]

 

This is an interestingly, dare one say provocatively, planned CD juxtaposing two works that are pretty much at opposite poles of Ivesí creative career.

The First Symphony, written between 1895 and 1898, was his Yale graduation piece (though it may not have been completed in time for graduation). It is an enjoyable, though prentice work. In its pages one can sense the struggle within Ives who was trying on the one hand to please the academic establishment of Yale (and his teacher, Horatio Parker in particular) and, on the other hand, to be true to himself and his naturally quirky view of music.

One can easily discern the influence of several romantic composers including Brahms, Tchaikovsky and, especially I think, DvořŠk. There are many passages where the Czech master comes to mind. He would not have disowned the melody with which the first movement opens, I suspect. Equally, the long cor anglais solo at the start of the second movement takes us straight to the pages of the New World symphony (could Ives have known the work.?) But Ivesí music is no mere pastiche. Every bar breathes sincerity and just when you think, "that passage sounds like ... " Ives throws in an unexpected harmonic or rhythmic sidestep to remind the listener that even at this early stage his was still a unique voice.

The author of the liner notes, Jan Swafford (the author, by the way, of a magisterial biography of Brahms) says of the symphony that "it rambles, it lurches, it is overstuffed with ideas." I agree, but I also find it assured and endearing. The first movement is vernally fresh. The second movement does rather drift along in places but still makes engaging listening. The scherzo is a whirling, scampering invention that finds the Irish orchestra suitably light on their collective feet. The infectious finale bubbles with good humour and its conclusion is reminiscent of Tchaikovsky in extrovert mood.

The work has its weaknesses, I have no doubt. However, itís a disarming and enjoyable piece and James Sinclair, a noted Ives scholar and interpreter, leads the orchestra in a spirited and well-played account that makes the best possible case for the music.

The Emerson Concerto sprang from Ivesí fascination with men of letters and, specifically from his admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson. Other writers who inspired his work at around the same time were Robert Browning and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ives worked on a piano concerto inspired by Emerson for some time but laid it aside in 1911 and seems never to have returned to it. Jan Swafford tells us that the work "exists as a developed draft, one or two stages from a completed score." What is recorded here is a performing version edited by the Ives scholar, David G. Porter.

If the First Symphony represents early, accessible Ives then this concerto is at the opposite extreme. As Swafford says, the music is "craggy, dissonant, searching". It is music that makes no compromises, takes no prisoners and I have to confess that I donít feel that I understand the piece much more now than when I first began the listening process.

It is cast in four movements, which all follow each other with no discernible break. Much of the first movement is, to my ears, music of conflict with the soloist pitted against the orchestra. Swafford suggests plausibly that the soloist represents Emerson and the orchestra is the world pitted against him. The piano part is, for the most part, exceptionally percussive and the music is jagged and dissonant. Towards the end the tension eases somewhat and the second movement begins with a ruminative piano solo. However, after scarcely one minute of this more easeful music the powerful, craggy side of the work reasserts itself.

The third movement is more sanguine. It opens with a poetic passage for piano and solo flute in duet. Thereafter the music assumes a reflective and questing character but is still is predominantly lyrical. The final movement opens with surging, potent and aggressively dissonant music and this holds sway for some time. However, the ending is quite extraordinary with the soloist playing alone. Here the music is hushed, introspective and questioning. Indeed, the listener is not quite sure that the end has in fact been reached. Has the music stopped? What conclusion has Ives or the listener reached? Interestingly, the notes tell us that Ives said that he never felt the Emerson music was finished, nor did he wish it to be.

This is knotty, disturbing, difficult music that certainly does not yield its secrets easily. As I say, I do not yet understand it, nor am I sure that I ever shall. On one level itís an enterprising, not to say challenging coupling for the symphony. On the other hand, Iím not sure how impulse purchasers who are new to Ives will regard it. This is one reason why I think Naxos might have been better advised to have reversed the playing order of the CD and to have put the symphony first, not second. The other, aesthetic reason is that if the concerto had been placed second there would have been no danger of the bright and breezy opening bars of the symphony intruding into the listenerís contemplation of the echoing into silence with which the concerto ends.

So far as I can judge Alan Feinberg gives a commanding and idiomatic account of what Iím sure is a fiendishly difficult solo part. James Sinclair and the orchestra support him manfully. The sound in both works is very good, reporting lots of detail within a convincing overall sound picture. The notes are useful and informative.

Though Naxos donít claim it as such I think this may well be the recording debut of the concerto, in which case this CD will be particularly self-recommending to Ives fans and I doubt theyíll be disappointed. Iím not so sure how much appeal the whole disc will be to the non-specialist collector. However, at the Naxos price those with an enquiring ear can experiment for a modest outlay.

John Quinn

 

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