Charles IVES (1874 - 1954)
Holidays Symphony, movements 2, 3 and 4: Decoration Day (1912/1913), The Fourth of July (1911/1912), Thanksgiving and Forefathers Day (1914) [31:14]
The General Slocum (1904) [5:46]
Overture in G minor (c. 1897) [8:24]
Yale-Princeton Football Game (c.1910) [2:27]
Postlude in F (1889) [4:54]
Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus/James Sinclair
rec. 19 - 21 June 2007 (Decoration Day, Fourth of July, Yale-Princeton Football Game and Postlude in F), 8 - 10 January 2008 (General Slocum, Overture and Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day) Konsertsalon, Malmö, Sweden, DDD
NAXOS 8.559370 [53:16]

When I started listening to classical music in the 1960s a disk like this would have caused derision amongst many people. Cries of “amateur” were quite often raised against Ives, and those interested in his later pieces, such as the Holidays Symphony, were heartily disappointed in his early works, such as the cantata The Celestial Country and the 1st Symphony. We had no clear perspective on Ives’s music at all and the occasional broadcast, or LP release, only served to baffle us even more. How things change! Forty years on and Ives is seen as one of the most important composers to come out of the New World, a maverick in the sense that he blazed a trail for those who were to follow him. True, during his lifetime he had few admirers but those who knew his work - Aaron Copland, Bernard Herrmann and Lou Harrison amongst them - knew that he was a significant figure. Who, also, could have predicted that first rate performances and recordings of this difficult music would, ultimately, appear regularly on budget labels?

The Holidays Symphony is a four movement work made up of separate tone poems depicting various American holidays - three of them appear on this disk, the first movement, Washington’s Birthday, can be found on Naxos 8.559087. Stravinsky defined a masterpiece in music as Decoration Day, and you couldn’t ask for a better puff than that. The Fourth of July, which Ives rated as one of his best works, is a depiction of that festival through a boy’s eyes. Consequently, we have a fife and drum band, a firecracker is “accidentally” set off and as the mist rises there is the whole scene vividly in front of us - especially near the end where the Town Hall explodes! Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day brings the Symphony to a magnificent conclusion with pealing bells and a chorus singing O God beneath Thy guiding hand.

Throughout these three performances one is conscious of the great deal of attention which has been given to ensuring that each work is presented in the best light and the editions employed are the best that scholarship can offer.

The other works on this disk are more than mere makeweights. Sensibly, they are placed between the movements of the Holidays Symphony - which isn’t a Symphony in the true sense of the word as we understand it from the German classical tradition. They are fascinating both as respite from the hard work of the three big pieces and for what they show us of the composer in his earlier years.

The Overture in G minor is a student piece and it goes through the European classical music motions. As with his 1st Symphony, written the following year, there’s a lot of Dvořák in there. It isn’t without its quirkiness, but you’ll have to listen carefully to spot the delicious jokes Ives plays. The General Slocum, despite being written only six years later, is a more mature and assured work, just listen to the bassoon writing and the blaring dissonant brass. Then note how the waltz grows out of the almost Ligetian multi-polyphony in the strings. This is a true Ivesian nightmare landscape, especially in the huge, catastrophic, climax.

The Yale-Princeton Football Game is another strange soundscape, which quotes from the Fourth of July, or perhaps vice versa. Quite what this has to do with baseball is beyond me! The Postlude in F is from pre-Yale days, written as an organ voluntary and orchestrated whilst he was studying at Yale. You’d never guess that it was written by Ives for it is very square, very gentle and totally harmonically delightful.

Love him or hate him, Charles Ives is now accepted as the major figure he is. This marvellous collection is very well played, expertly recorded and has a good note in the inlay sheet. If you’re new to Ives then this is a really good introduction to the man and his music. If you’re already a fan then this is essential for your CD shelf. Either way, this is a must-have.

Bob Briggs