Charles IVES (1874-1954)
New England Holidays Symphony: II. Decoration Day (1912-13) (ed. James SINCLAIR) [8:56]
The General Slocum* (1904) (realization by David G. PORTER) [5:46]
Overture in g minor* (realization by David G. PORTER) [8:24]
New England Holidays Symphony: III. The Fourth of July (1911-12) (realization by W. SHIRLEY) [6:13]
Yale-Princeton Football Game (1897) (realization by James SINCLAIR) [2:27]
Postlude in F (originally for organ, 1989) (ed. K. SINGLETON) [4:54]
New England Holidays Symphony: IV. Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day (c.1914 from earlier sketches) (ed. J. ELKUS) [16:36]
*World Première Recordings
Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus/James Sinclair
rec. Konsertsalen, Malmö, Sweden, 19-21 June 2007 and 8-10 January 2008

This is the fourth release in the Naxos series of recordings with James Sinclair of orchestral music by Charles Ives and it includes two world première recordings, The General Slocum and Overture in g minor, both presented in realisations by David Porter. It’s not as if the world has been pining for recordings of these works, but they are well worth hearing - the first commemorating the death of over a thousand people when a pleasure steamer blew up, the latter a Yale assignment, hardly recognisable as the work of Ives; like the first symphony, it might well have been written by Brahms or Dvořák. Despite which, I really like the First Symphony. I used to have the Abravanel recording on Vanguard; I must investigate the more recent offerings - will it be Sinclair/Naxos, Järvi/Chandos or Litton/Hyperion? - perhaps in a forthcoming Download Roundup.

Those who steer clear of Ives’ reputation as an enfant terrible may be reassured that there’s nothing really shocking in this programme, the main part of which is made up of three movements from his Holidays Symphony. Even the glorious chaos at the end of The Fourth of July is good fun, evocative of a boy’s-eye view of the parade and the marching bands. The marvel is that Ives composed this work long before it became fashionable to write about aleatoric music, polytonality and polyrhythm.

I’m a little puzzled why it was necessary to carve up the symphony, with its first movement, Washington’s Birthday, on another Naxos CD, 8.559087, and its movements separated by the other items here. I know that the four movements were originally conceived as separate tone poems, but it would have been more logical to keep them together. There would have been enough space on the new recording to have included the whole symphony, even at the cost of duplicating that one movement.

You’ll see from the Musicweb survey of recordings of the symphony that I’m not alone in this preference, though James Sinclair’s recording with the Northern Sinfonia of Washington’s Birthday on the earlier CD receives an otherwise strong recommendation. Whatever reservations I may have, I liked the contrast between the quiet opening of Decoration Day, at the start of the CD, and Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day, which makes a resounding conclusion to the recording.

Apart from the two premières, there are two other rarities on the new CD, the Postlude which Ives originally conceived as an organ piece and subsequently orchestrated, and the commemoration of a famous Yale-Princeton varsity match. They are both pleasant enough, though hardly vintage Ives, and the performances make a good case for them.

James Sinclair is a noted Ives scholar and his earlier recordings for Naxos have been well received, so it comes as no surprise that everything here sounds thoroughly idiomatic. Those earlier recordings have been with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and the Northern Sinfonia of England. Unlike the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, who recorded Symphony No.2 and the Robert Browning Orchestra for Naxos with kennethe Schermerhorn at the helm, neither of these is exactly to the Ivesian manner born, any more than the Malmö performers on the current CD and on Sinclair’s recording of Three Orchestral Sets, yet everything here continues the good work of the earlier discs.

Stephen Hall made that earlier Malmö recording of the Orchestral Sets his Recording of the Month (8.559353 - see review), not least because it brought the three works together. If I am marginally less impressed with the current CD, it’s for the opposite reason, the disintegration of the Holidays Symphony.

The recording is good, with a wide dynamic range - from the almost inaudible opening chords of Decoration Day to the cataclysmic sound of the boat’s boiler exploding in The General Slocum and the conflicting marching bands in The Fourth of July.

The presentation is good, too, with notes, by Jan Swafford, which are readable and informative and a wonderful collage on the front cover, painted by James Bigelow Hall, grandnephew of Ives.

My review copy came with the Naxos American Classics Catalog, a reminder of the impressive credentials which this series has already established for itself. The quality of the current offering is no exception. It prompts me to investigate Sinclair’s other Ives recordings and several more works in the series which I’ve missed out on.

Brian Wilson 

see also review by Bob Briggs