The Music of America
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
SONY 88697 70049 2 [189:53]
Full tracklist at end of review 

CDs 1 and 2 
This is very much - though not exclusively - Tilson Thomas's Ives and predominantly from the 1980s. The exceptions include a single straggler conducted by Stokowski (the Fugue movement from symphony 4) though his name is not mentioned in the booklet listing. In any event it’s the version in which Jose Serebrier collaborated as assistant. There’s also Stokie's Robert Browning Overture and Ormandy's America Variations.
MTT directs orchestras from Chicago, the Concertgebouw and San Francisco. the recordings sound a lot better being more recent than those for Bernstein, Barber and Copland.
The Second Symphony and the Variations on America have solid Brahmsian ‘bottom’ to them even if the Second does end with American brashness and that innovative iconoclastic discord.
MTT’s From Steeple and Mountains does justice to the inventive Ives who pushes magically at the boundaries of the spidery decay of tonality. The piece has some of the mystique of the trumpet solos in Schmidt's Fourth Symphony yet with a wonderful spareness. The Browning Overture is out there at the edge as well with a dissonant devilry. The webby canvas returns in the subtleties of the Holiday Symphony’sDecoration Day which sound rather lichen-hung as if having escaped from the dank worlds created by Frank Bridge in the 1920s.
Two ballads sung by Thomas Hampson with MTT at the piano show how predictive Ives was of the wit of Bernstein. In Things our Father Taught Us the drawing-room melts away as modernity’s refractory imagination infiltrates the room.
The Circus Band is brazen and pastiche. General William Booth enters Heaven is a phantasmagoria which bawls with tin tabernacle wildness. Ives cuts this already heady mixture with gospel hymn cross-currents. The challenge thrown down by the choir in Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb is taken up in the long string sampler hymnals of the Fugue from the Fourth Symphony.
CD 3
The Third Symphony is smoothly Brahmsian yet with unusual touches. The Children's Day chatter is full of earnestly playful Allegro power. It is an affectionate portrait that ends in a impressionistic fragile mist - infinitely touching and uncertain of itself. Those bells might well have inspired Hovhaness who was a close co-worker of Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison; the latter revived the Third Symphony in 1947 winning for the work a Pulitzer Prize.
Three Places in New England is another Frank Bridge-style confection - clammy, lichen-draped and Gothic-romantic. There are times when you could morph this score into Bridge's There is a Willow. The orchestral piano chips in part way through The St Gaudens across the sweetest tender string writing. Putnam’s Camp is full of good-hearted discord and moonlit Pierrot play. The famous Housatonic at Stockbridge is in part Delian as in Appalachia with the gently twinkling discord of the piano across the choir which is only heard in this movement. It ends, not in honeyed reaffirmation, but in a boiling discord.
In The Unanswered Question the tension is superbly sustained by MTT and the Chicagoans. It ends with flittering and discordant birdsong and that silkily sighing attenuated violin sound here redolent of the Tallis Fantasia. The Scriabin-like solo trumpet of Adolph Herseth is part enigmatic and part elegiac as in the Schmidt Fourth Symphony.
We end with Central Park in the Dark which takes us into much the same world as The Unanswered Question. There’s an evolutionary up-welling rising to a jazzily discordant convulsion. All power dissipated, the music sinks into an uneasy free-floating dimension. It’s incredibly imaginative and not at all difficult to take on board.
MTT’s ‘complete’ Ives - without incomers - is on another Sony set.
Scott Mortensen Ives site within MusicWeb International is very much worth a visit … or ten.
Rob Barnett
CD 1 64:50
Symphony No. 2 37:42
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
From the Steeples and the Mountains 4:15
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
Robert Browning Overture 22:58
American Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
CD 2 69:07
Variations on America - arr William Schuman 7:11
Philadelphia Orchestra | Eugene Ormandy
A Holidays Symphony 41:24
Chicago Symphony Chorus/Fred Spector
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
The Things our Fathers Loved 1:47; Memories 2:30
Thomas Hampson/Michael Tilson Thomas (Piano)
The Circus Band 3:02
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
General William Booth Enters Into Heaven 5:42
Thomas Hampson (Baritone)
San Francisco Girls Chorus
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
Symphony No. 4: III. Fugue. Andante moderato con moto 7:31
The Members of The Schola Cantorum of New York | American Symphony Orchestra/Jose Serebrier
CD 3 55:56
Symphony No. 3, "The Camp Meeting": 31:49
Concertgebouw Orchestra Michael Tilson Thomas
Three Places in New England: Putnam's Camp 9:28
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
The Unanswered Question 7:13
Adolph Herseth (Trumpet)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
Central Park In The Dark 7:26
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas