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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Symphony No.2 (1901-2) [39:08]
The Unanswered Question (1906) [5:29]
Central Park in the Dark (1906) [7:53]
Tone Roads No.1 [2:53]; From the Steeples and the Mountains [3:23]; The Rainbow [1:50]; Ann Street [1:06]; Over the Pavements [4:32]; Tone Roads No.3 [2:38];
The Pond [1:54]; All the Way Round and Back [0:56]; Chromâtimelôdtune [5:27]
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein (Symphony, Unanswered Question); Seiji Ozawa; Maurice Peress (Central Park) and unnamed orchestra, Gunther Schuller (rest)
rec. St. George Hotel, Brooklyn, New York, 6 Oct 1958 (Symphony), Manhattan Center, New York, 17 April 1964 (Unanswered Question), 7 May 1962 (Central Park) and Jordan Hall, Boston, Massachusetts, 31 Mar-1 April 1969 (rest)
SONY CLASSIC LIBRARY SK 94731 [78:09]

 

 

The three main works on this disc are well represented in the catalogue, but these recordings are pretty famous and have been available over the years in a number of reincarnations. The selection of shorter items was new to me and may well prove to be the main point of interest in this latest reissue.

Bernstein gave the famous premiere of Ives’ youthful, European-inspired Symphony No. 2 in 1951, a performance that the elderly composer heard on a neighbour’s radio. This recording, made a few years later by Columbia, is live - though that is not mentioned on the ‘sleeve’ - and includes a certain amount of coughing and shuffling. It’s not too distracting, especially as the orchestral balance is very close, and is only problematic in very quiet passages. The early stereo channel separation is quite wide between lower and upper strings, almost as if the engineers were experimenting with stereo ‘spread’, but the ear soon adjusts. The playing itself has tremendous vitality, so typical of Bernstein’s recordings with the NYPO of the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, the main competition in these three works comes from Bernstein himself in his later digital account for DG, also ‘live’ with the same orchestra. As with most of his remakes, tempos are more luxuriant and there is more warmth and opulence generally. But this first recording teems with energy and detail; the string playing in the first movement is truly voluptuous, brass and wind ping out from the texture and the finale goes along at a real zip. I’ve never been quite convinced by Bernstein’s insistence on holding the final discord longer than the staccato that Ives specifies. He does it also in his later remake, and it has often made me wonder if it was this exaggeration from Bernstein that caused the composer, reportedly, to get up from his chair after the broadcast, walk silently to the hearth and spit in the fire. If you hear it played as Ives intended, say on Michael Stern’s recording with the Saarbrücken RSO on Col Legno (coupled with the Universe Symphony), it sounds more suitably abrupt and less like an orchestral raspberry, which was never in the composer’s mind when he added the chord in the late 1940s.

The two marvellous essays in polytonality that follow are also well done. Despite a slightly tentative start from the strings, The Unanswered Question has the requisite atmosphere and a wonderfully baleful trumpet from William Vacchiano. Its companion piece, Central Park in the Dark, conducted by Ozawa and Peress but ‘supervised’ by Bernstein, is less gripping than the remake but boasts characterful wind playing. Both suffer from slightly dry, airless recordings and there is a lot of extraneous noise from the orchestra, shuffling, clattering of music stands, page turning etc. Again, the remake shows how orchestras had learnt to respect recording conditions.

The Gunther Schuller collection was new to me and also has audio question marks, but the pieces brilliantly illustrate the trajectory that Ives’ style had taken from that early tonal symphony. The two Tone Roads are little gems that wouldn’t go amiss in a modern contemporary music festival. From The Steeples and the Mountains involves a dissonant brass duet gradually being drowned out by church bells, Ann Street celebrates a tiny, bustling lane near Wall Street and the jostling polyrhythms of Over the Pavements reflect, in the composer’s words ‘the sounds of people going to and fro ... different and changing kinds of beats, times and rhythms ...’ It’s wonderfully wacky and is almost an early musique concrète, though the weirdest cacophony is saved for zanily-named Chromâtimelôdtune, realized from a detailed sketch by Schuller in 1962. This is the world of The Unanswered Question taken to its ‘consonance versus dissonance’ limit.

The recording quality here is even drier and closer, and some of the playing by the unnamed ‘scratch’ ensemble is shaky, but it’s a valuable collection that is well worth having alongside the more familiar fare. It has to be said that the later DG disc is now at lower mid-price and also includes some quirkier short pieces (including Tone Roads No.1) and is in much better sound, an important factor in some of these atmospheric scores. This may sway it for some.

Tony Haywood

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