Charles IVES (1874–1954)
Holidays Symphony – performance [55:20] and analysis.
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas

16:9 widescreen format; 7.1 surround sound, 2.0 stereo. DSD/NTSC. Region 0 (all regions)
AVIE/SFS MEDIA DVD 821936002490 [111:50]

Also available on Blu-ray 821936002599. The performance of the Symphony, coupled with COPLAND: Appalachian Spring is also available on CD: 82193600342.

This is one of a series of DVD introductions featuring the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas (hereafter MTT). Other DVDs cover Berlioz, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Copland: the Berlioz and Shostakovich, together with this Ives programme, are also available on Blu-ray. Full details are available from Of all the composers whose works are included, I suppose that most people know Ives least well and the ‘Holidays’ symphony less well than the numbered symphonies, so I was very pleased to see that this DVD had been produced.

The programme opens with the thoughts of members of the orchestra – thoughts which are not radically different from the general perception, such as that Ives’ music is the equivalent of a three-ring circus. Even MTT, seated at Ives’ own piano, admits to an element of perplexity, that a small-town ‘regular guy’ – “if he were alive today, they’d run him for president” – should compose such forward-looking and provocative music.

Did MTT’s exposition add anything to my understanding and appreciation of the Holidays Symphony? It certainly strengthened my belief that the work is not just a gathering-together of disparate movements but deserves to be regarded as a proper symphony and my regret that the recent Naxos recordings split the movements across two CDs. To make matters worse, the fine performance of the last three movements of the symphony are separated from each other on Naxos 8.559370 – see my review and review by Bob Briggs. MTT convinces me that the work holds together as a four-seasons symphony, enshrining much of Ives’ early experiences in New England.

MTT explains how two experiences connected with Ives’ band-master father seem to have been particularly influential: he required him to sing one tune while he played another – leading to Ives’ use of a familiar folksy tune against an uneasy and contrasting background – and he experimented with two marching bands meeting each other. The poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson seems also to have been a strong influence, a subject on which MTT touches but about which I would have liked greater detail. Perhaps, too, he might have touched more on the influence of familiar church tunes – these are not so familiar to most listeners today.

It’s when he begins to analyse the movements of the symphony that MTT’s commentary becomes most illuminating – the “snowed-in claustrophobia” of the opening of ‘Washington’s Birthday’ giving way to the different mood of a barn-dance, illustrated with musicians from the orchestra taking part in a Blue Grass Festival, intercut with relevant parts of the movement and MTT at the keyboard of Ives’ piano. Sometimes the ghostly images of dancers are superimposed over the SFSO.

The four movements relate to landmarks in the US calendar, beginning with ‘Washington’s Birthday’ in February. Next comes the Spring movement, ‘Decoration Day’. UK listeners are most likely to be perplexed by this second movement, especially as it is now known even in the US as Memorial Day, the last Monday in May (Spring Bank Holiday in the UK). Here MTT’s exposition is again very helpful, though I wondered how much further it took the listener into understanding the music than the detailed explanation in Jan Swafford’s notes to the Naxos performance to which I have referred. The Naxos note mentions the use of the tune Adeste Fideles, but fails to explain how a Christmas hymn came to be relevant to a late Spring festival; MTT does explain this anomaly – it was one of the few tunes that the band knew, so they just played it more slowly and solemnly.

‘The Fourth of July’ forms the Summer movement and here exposition is probably less necessary than in the other movements: one doesn’t have to be American to understand the celebratory nature of the piece, Ives’ remembrance of his sense of freedom on this day as a boy. Again, those Naxos notes really tell us all that we really need to know.

The final movement ‘Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day’ is probably the most approachable section of the work, both musically and in terms of what the celebration means for Americans – it’s pretty familiar to the rest of us from film and TV. Once again, I’m not sure that MTT’s exposition added a great deal to what one might glean from the Naxos notes, but I was left feeling grateful for having heard the explanation of all four movements from a musician who clearly relates to Ives’ music. The last time I so much enjoyed a conductor describing the music he was about to perform was when André Previn did the same sort of thing on BBC TV some 40 years ago.

The performance of the Symphony, which can be accessed separately, is as good as any that you are likely to hear, but I wondered why it was necessary to preface each movement with yet further exposition, referred to as programme notes, from MTT – we’ve already had that in the earlier section. I didn’t find that the visuals added to the enjoyment of the performance, but I seldom find video helpful in a purely orchestral piece. On this occasion I particularly didn’t want to keep peering over the violinists’ shoulders or seeing the flautist’s blue fingernails: this is one of those recordings where we switch dizzyingly from conductor, to one instrument, then to another, to yet another and back again. Of course, Ives’ music itself often switches dizzyingly from one theme to another, but I still didn’t much enjoy the experience. In one of the extras, Inside the Orchestra, MTT defends the use of film-making tricks such as flyovers as ways of bringing classical music to a wider audience. I don’t buy the argument, but you may.

On the other hand, it was helpful to see the spotlight rise and fade on the distant violin soloist in the gallery in ‘Washington’s Birthday’ and on the choir in ‘Thanksgiving Day’. If you didn’t know what a jews harp looked like, you will after seeing the close-up here. For all my reservations about the visual presentation, I wanted to replay the whole work immediately afterwards.

Played back via a good sound system, the recording is a little distant and needs to be heard at a much higher volume than usual. There are no notes, merely a single-sided ad for the rest of the series, but the programme itself is the notes.

I am sure that I shall return to this DVD of the Holidays Symphony, but probably in sound only, via the Cambridge Audio 650BD attached to my audio system – not only does it play SACDs very well, but it’s very useful for listening to Blu-ray and DVD opera discs without the pictures. The same effect can be achieved by purchasing the related Avie/SFS Media CD of the Holidays Symphony and Copland’s Appalachian Spring (82193600342) What I would really like, though, would be for Naxos to reissue the Symphony complete and uninterrupted on one CD.

Brian Wilson

An enlightening commentary on a neglected work… see Full Review