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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Orchestral Set No.1 (version 1, Ed. James B Sinclair) (c.1913-14) [18:07] (1) Impression of the ‘St Gauden’s’ in Boston Common; 2) Putnam’s Camp; 3) The Housatonic at Stockbridge)
Orchestral Set No.2 (1919) [15:49] (1) An Elegy to Our Forefathers; 2) The Rockstrewn Hills Join in the People’s Outdoor Meeting; 3) From Hanover Square North, at the End of Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose)
Orchestral Set No.3 (circa 1926 to 1954 and edited) [28:40] (1) Andante moderato arr. David Gray Porter; 2) During Camp Meetin’ Week – One Secular Afternoon (in Bethel); 3) Andante arr. Nors Josephson)
Malmö Chamber Choir and Symphony Orchestra/James B Sinclair
rec. 2006-07, Konsertsalen, Malmö. DDD.
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559353 [63:36]
Experience Classicsonline

To have Charles Ives’ Orchestral Sets on a single disc would have been a fantasy twenty+ years ago. In those day the music was too often seen as a curiosity or aberration by some crazy Yank who dabbled in musical pastiche but was a daytime businessman. The reality is that Ives grew up with music in his Danbury CT household and was largely taught by his bandmaster father but also by his mother, who was more for reading from the page.
 
Charles was bright all-round and gained a scholarship to Yale to study music under Horatio Parker whose approach was boring to the young man. After much talent shown in the distraction of football (the American sort), Ives accepted the need to learn European ways of writing in order to graduate. Charles had also been active in student publications and various fraternities.
 
This release has good notes by Jan Swafford but I take issue with his assertion that “any combination of notes is acceptable if you knew what you were doing with them”, (Ives snr. to his son), because evidence is missing. I have no reason to doubt that Charles ever wrote a note he hadn’t chosen after Yale. The ‘first version’ of Orchestral Set No. 1 on this disc supports my argument as Ives omitted some aspects of the autograph score (1913-14) to facilitate acceptance by musicians and audience.
 
The more familiar, full, version is neither more complete nor less because the two versions complement each other both practically and in terms of musical veracity. While the ‘trimmed back’ version might suit some ensembles and venues better than ‘version 2’, James Sinclair has done a great thing in showing that Ives’s disciplined structures were ever in the composer’s head, in practical terms. This blows away the patronising European hangover that Ives was too quirky to be important.
 
The well-known fascination with multiple rhythms, polytonality and much more being due to hearing multiple bands and clashing keys in downtown Danbury stretches only so far. It might have primed the pump but Charles’s graduation piece, Symphony No.1, is basically Germanic romanticism with all the necessary counterpoint and convention to pass an exam. Yet with a few challenges which Prof. Parker allowed, most of Ives’s works are far from ‘home-spun’ and this Naxos issue makes this point once and for all as long as one is acquainted with most of his music. The ‘pop’, folksy elements take up less of Ives’s music than record companies would have had us believe. This is in the general nature of corporations seeking the dollar but listen and then Schoenberg’s view of Ives’s importance makes sense.
 
Ives apparently stood up to a noisy audience over a performance of music and uttered “Stand up and use your ears like a man”. None of his works was being performed at that concert. Other MWI readers might supply dates and facts: maybe Webern and Ruggles were being played.
 
Ives wrote in many media typical of his time. Although the First Symphony is quasi-pastiche German Romanticism there is profound development to be heard in the other three numbered ones and the ‘Holidays Symphony’. The latter is relevant to this review as the formerly unrecorded Orchestral Set No.3 uses material from ‘Holidays’ in the second movement.
 
Jan Swafford’s notes on the First Orchestral Set are superb because disparate pieces written over a period long before 1913 cohered into a form similar to Debussy’s best orchestral works made of different parts but all related musically. The notion that composers sit down to write something in a given form doesn’t apply to some of the greatest. We hear this in Sinclair’s probing and so musical version of Ives’s trimmed-down score. It is simply captivating but I tried it against the ‘full’ versions by Tilson-Thomas (Sony/CBS) and Dohnányi (Decca) and both versions of the actual work make sense.
 
I chose these releases of Version 2 as they give comparable sonics from CD. Other versions of a certain age have special merits - notably Johanos and the DG Tilson-Thomas on vinyl - but a reviewer compares like with like.
 
The DG Boston Symphony Tilson-Thomas of 1970 is available on Arkiv CD and is still the best according to most Ives enthusiasts. I suggest that readers set this against Sinclair’s version as long as a good DAC is used to level the ADD/DDD playing field. Such an important work as ‘Three Places in New England’ (its other title) deserves due attention in the composer’s two versions. The subtraction of misty orchestral effects in ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’ takes nothing away from the impressionism and Ives’s musical integrity. I rather think the opposite, as genius is never over-dressed. Considering that Ives was clear in his language (eventually publishing in 1913-14) this music is sobering when one considers other musical events of that time from the top five composers in Europe. I welcome MWI readers’ comments on this assertion.
 
The Second Orchestral Set of 1917-1919 used earlier material. Accusations that phrases in the first movement ‘Elegy to Our Forefathers’ were cribbed from Stravinsky and Schoenberg have no substance, particularly as the movement also uses polyrhythms from the outset with popular song material; all of this in a mere 16 minutes. Rather it seems to be the case that Ives’s sonic thinking anticipated what others were praised for.
 
The second movement, ‘The Rock-strewn Hills Join in the People’s Outdoor Meeting’ has a very clumsy title by European standards but also shades of William Blake (1770-1827) who had no time for fashion in his own time. Ives takes a mere five minutes to take us into a sonic world of austere mountains and small, decent people doing ordinary things. His secret is to use a changing heartbeat undertone in the basses and cellos. The fact that the tempo is arrhythmic tells us more than the verbose title. Ives was fascinated by the scale of grand nature dwarfing the small affairs of people and yet the pulse remains human.
 
The third movement title is even longer (see the heading). It is explanatory of the events of 7 May 1915 when Ives was on his way home from his New York office and the news of the sinking of the ‘Lusitania’ by German submarines was breaking. America had stayed out of the Great War but the loss of so many citizens on the ship - which indeed was carrying arms to Britain and France - made entry into the war inevitable.
 
Where Sinclair scores over Dohnányi with the Cleveland Orchestra and Morton Gould’s premiere recording for RCA (hard to find these days) is in the chorus being used quietly to illustrate Ives’s experience of people breaking into hymn singing. It would have been halting, sad and not as up-front as represented on some releases. The music isn’t Mahler’s large choruses - which Ives heard in New York when Mahler conducted there - and Sinclair’s musicologist side appreciated that.
 
The Second Orchestral Set is tough to get right and the quiet end in C puzzles some but what would Ives and his wife do ‘at the end of a tragic day’ but be normal and routine? The last bar is turning out the light? Sinclair gets this dead right, whereas Dohnányi lapses into making oddly Berg-like gestures which detract from the fact that this music is not European. Ives anticipated many developments in western music but Berg heard no Ives. Ives might have heard some Berg after he had ceased composing but the streams have no historical meeting. Dohnányi’s recording is from the 1990s so the leakage is too recent to be forgivable and Sinclair’s version takes the gold medal in all respects.
 
The Third Orchestral Set poses the usual question of validity when a work is ‘completed’ by other hands. Cooke’s Mahler 10, Payne’s Elgar 3 and what Rimsky did with (or to) Mussorgsky spring to mind. I admit to having being suspicious about notes stating ‘edited by’ or ‘realized by’ until I had understood the issues.
 
Swafford’s notes describe (brilliantly) what happened to Ives at the age of 53 (1927) when he broke down in tears and told his wife Harmony that he couldn’t complete the works on his desk. Some Ives scholars imply that his heart attacks were mentally based but treatment for his chronic diabetes back then was primitive and subjective hindsight is a waste of time. Suffice to say that Ives was a semi-invalid from 1927 to his death in 1954 and the main casualty for music was possibly the Third Orchestral Set.
 
The longest of the three at nearly half an hour, it uses the slow-fast-slow pattern of the others but the mostly complete draft of the first movement is a very serious affair. It has the same sort of orchestration as Ives used in the mighty Fourth Symphony (1916) and the re-scored ‘Holidays Symphony’ (1897-1913 to 1919).
 
The fact that Ives added notes right up to 1951 upholds the veracity of what David Gray Porter and Nors Josephson presented to Prof Swafford and James Sinclair. I doubt that Sinclair’s academic integrity would have allowed him to conduct this marvel except for that evidential assurance.
 
The second movement ‘During Camp Meetin’ Week – One Secular Afternoon’ runs to 9:46 and uses aspects of ‘Holidays…’ with Ives’s own orchestration. The third movement (Andante) realized from the composer’s notes by Nors Josephson sits more easily than the second (which I think should be longer). The scholarship surrounding revisions to the third and fourth symphonies (to dispense with a second conductor) show that Ives was moving towards what we have here. And what we have here is nothing short of genius at work over a career, applied musicology of the highest veracity.
 
The Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Chorus show its international standing, superb recording and production and all under conductor James Sinclair. Celebrity conductors have their place but some music also needs a scholar by training who conducts with innate authority; that is a description of James B Sinclair. He reminds me of Abravanel in his pioneering Ives on Vanguard and Morton Gould with the Chicago Symphony when Ives was being discovered in the 1970s - a bit late as he had died in 1954.
 
This Naxos release is a great moment in the history of recorded music. I ask other MWI readers and reviewers to request finishing the five symphonies (2 & 3 have already been released) to be priority issues for Naxos.
 
Stephen Hall
 
Reviews of other Ives recordings on Naxos American Classics
 


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