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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Symphony No.1 (1898) [37:22]
Symphony No.4 (1916) [30:57]
Central Park in the Dark (1906) [9:46]
Dallas Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. live, Morton H. Myerson Symphony Center, Dallas, Jan 2006
HYPERION CDA 67540 [78:25]

Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Symphony No.2 (1902) [39:50]
Symphony No.3 The Camp Meeting (1907) [23:59]
General William Booth enters into Heaven [5:13]
Donnie Ray Albert (baritone)
Dallas Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. live, Morton H. Myerson Symphony Center, Dallas, Sept 2004 (No.3), Jan 2006 (rest)
HYPERION CDA 67525 [69:26]

 

Anyone who has heard the excellent Rachmaninov cycle with Stephen Hough will know what a blistering, incisive contribution Andrew Litton and this orchestra made towards the success of that enterprise. Hyperion obviously thought so, and went back to tape this wonderful series of Ives concerts. They have some strong competition – of which more later – but there is no doubt in my mind that these performances represent all that’s best about American orchestras and conductors, particularly in their own music. There is an unbuttoned passion, superb clarity of execution - particularly the brass - and, above all, a communication of spirit, probably down to Litton’s passion for the music, that just sweeps you along.

The discs really need to be bought as a pair so the amazing trajectory of Ives’ compositional style can be fully appreciated. It’s interesting that Hyperion couples 1 and 4, so that anyone opting for that one disc will get the polar juxtaposition of the student work and the visionary maturity, which is fine, but these pieces should really be in chronological order so the growth in technique and the development of the daring and revolutionary aspects of Ives’ writing are best displayed.

It’s easy to dismiss the First Symphony as a party game for your friends, a ‘guess-the-influence’ bit of fun. But Litton treats this work with deadly seriousness and has obviously lavished as much preparatory care on it as one of the illustrious models on which it is so clearly based. Yes, it is what liner-note writer Jan Swafford calls a ‘glorified homework assignment’ but the more I listen, the more I detect signs of the Ives to come. Among the many references to Brahms, Tchaikovsky and, especially, Dvořák, whose ‘New World’ lurks in every movement, there is a great deal of harmonic daring and thematic ingenuity. This is obviously what rattled his Yale superiors but it shows Ives really knew his music and there are modulations that would not have been out of place in ‘Tristan’. And what tunes Ives comes up with! From the first movement’s opening melody through every subsequent movement, the themes are naggingly memorable, an aspect Litton is happy to play to the full, letting the orchestra enjoy letting rip, especially in the rumbustious finale, where all the main themes are brought back together in a riot of brassy marches. It is said that, as with other composers’ juvenilia, Ives always retained a fondness for this piece.

The Second Symphony, essentially in the same late-Romantic mould, shows Ives taking the Wagner influence a stage further. All the same ghosts are there, but the melodic material is more overtly American and we begin to detect the Ives to come, hymn tunes rubbing shoulders with snippets of civil war songs, patriotic marches and spirituals, all wrapped up in a neo-European, richly orchestrated cloak. Litton is as good as any here, plenty of inner detail emerging from the heavy textures, and it’s good to report that he doesn’t emulate his mentor Leonard Bernstein in overdoing the great 11-note cluster that ends the piece.

The Third Symphony really takes us fully into the Ives world of gospel hymns and his organ-playing past. The three compact movements are utterly replete with these references, being subtitled ‘Old Folks Gatherin’’, ‘Children’s Day’ and ‘Communion’. This last movement shows the most daring, the complex polyphony and chromatic side-slipping probably giving us a clue as to how the young Ives used to improvise at the organ during church services. The Dallas strings really come into their own here, with a richly upholstered sheen and impeccable intonation.

The Fourth Symphony is the most radical of the four numbered works and nothing that has gone before quite prepares you for the shock. After the heroic initial theme, deep in the lower orchestra, we move into a world that Ives himself describes as ‘a cosmic world ... the questions of What? and Why? which the spirit of man asks of life. The three succeeding movements are the diverse answers in which existence replies’. This is the world of the later, unfinished Universe Symphony and The Unanswered Question, where cacophonous clusters worthy of Ligeti collide with hymn tunes such as ‘Nearer my God to Thee’ and ‘From Greenland’s icy mountains’. Such is the complexity that two conductors are often required, as here, and the whole amazing sound-world really encapsulates Ives, both musically and philosophically. Indeed, as Swafford relates in the note, Ives felt that music really could summon up ‘a vision higher and deeper than art itself’. The Fourth Symphony strikes me as the truest exemplar of that vision and it receives here a performance fully up to the high standards of previous generations of American conductors and orchestras, richly detailed yet striking the right balance between controlled abandon and visionary apotheosis. Sit back and let it wash over you!

The two fillers are also quintessential Ives, one vastly more famous than the other. Central Park in the Dark has had many excellent recordings over the years, but Litton’s really is beautifully graded, tense, atmospheric and superbly played. General William Booth enters into Heaven is a riotous setting of a poem by Vachel Lindsay, originally for voice and piano but later arranged by Ives’ colleague John J. Becker for baritone, choir and orchestra. It emerges as a quirky little cantata that evokes what Swafford calls ‘the frenzied tent revivals that continue in ‘charismatic’ circles to this day’. It brilliantly illustrates Ives’ fondness and skill in mingling comic and sublime, earthly and spiritual as we follow General Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, beating his big drum as he leads his parade of drunks and reprobates into the Promised Land. The massed forces, here fronted by Donnie Ray Albert, clearly have a great time without losing sight of Ives’ higher purpose.

So, an excellent pair of discs, well filled and beautifully recorded with virtually no audience intrusion. The competition is limited but strong, with the field in my view being led by Michael Tilson Thomas, whose re-issued three-disc set is retailing for around a tenner, astonishing value. Those Sony recordings have the numbered symphonies, together with the Holidays Symphony, Central Park in the Dark and two versions of The Unanswered Question. In many ways it represents the ideal Ives collection and still sounds extremely well, with superb contributions from the Chicago Symphony and Concertgebouw. However, I feel Litton shades it, mainly because of the continuity and subsequent intensity of the concert scenario, where orchestra, conductor and audience seemed to submit to the Ives experience, something we are privileged to be able to also share.

Tony Haywood

 



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