RECORDING OF THE MONTH

Charles IVES (1874-1954)
A Concord Symphony, orch. Henry Brant (1920/1995) [50:05]
I. Emerson [17:39]
II. Hawthorne [13:46]
III. The Alcotts [6:13]
IV. Thoreau [12:26]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Organ Symphony [27:02]
I. Prelude: Andante [7:13]
II. Scherzo: Allegro molto [7:40]
III. Finale: Lento-Allegro moderato [12:08]
Paul Jacobs (organ)
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. February 2010 (Ives), September 2010 (Copland), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.
Full Track Listing at end of review
SFS MEDIA 82193600382 [77:07]

As far as I can tell, this is only the second recording of Henry Brantís orchestration of Charles Ivesí Concord Sonata. I reviewed an earlier release, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, back in 2008. Rather than repeat myself in describing the work, Iíll refer readers to that original review, where I compare the orchestration to the original piano sonata.

For those interested in going further with this work, you can download the text of Charles Ivesí Essays Before a Sonata from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3673.

I have a particular affinity for this work - the piano sonata version - being especially interested in the writers that Ives puts into music, and having some 15 recordings of the work. Performers of the Sonata can approach it in many ways, choosing to highlight the tempestuousness of certain parts (notably in the Emerson movement), focusing on the rhythmic aspects or choosing tempi that are either very fast or much slower. The recordings I have range from a speedy 38 minutes to a leisurely 62 minutes, with an average in the 45-50 minute range, or about the same tempo as this current recording.

When unleashed for orchestra, the Concord Sonata (or Symphony) takes on a new life. As I said in my previous review of the Dennis Russell Davies recording, ďthese are more accurately two completely different works rather one being simply a transcription of the other.Ē Michael Tilson Thomas has developed a ďsoundĒ with his San Francisco Symphony orchestra, a group of musicians he has been working with regularly for more than fifteen years, and with whom he has performed many twentieth century works. There is a certain naturalness to this recording, as though the orchestra is in its milieu, and a balance among the instruments that sounds nearly ideal. When the orchestra lets loose in the middle of the Hawthorne section - with blaring horns, punctuated by soft strings, then back to a cacophony of horns, then a marching band imploding - I just want to turn the volume up and be overwhelmed by the waves of sound.

The sound quality of this disc is excellent. The orchestra is spacious, and the full palette of instruments can be heard well no matter what the volume; as this work has a very wide range of volume, this is essential. The full, lush strings in the Alcotts section fill the soundscape, and the definition of the winds and strings at the beginning of the Thoreau section is clean and precise. There is one tiny problem, though, at the end of the work: applause. There is really no need to have applause at the end of a live recording of any classical work, if that applause can be edited out - which it can here. It stands merely as a reminder that the recording is live - one which, by the way, is unnecessary. It is almost insulting to reach the end of a work, feel the enjoyment of completion, and then be interrupted by such noise. If Iím in a concert hall, I expect it; on my stereo, I resent it. Why any sound engineer, or anyone else involved in a recording like this, would want to have five seconds of applause, is beyond me.

While the head-liner on this disc is the Concord Symphony, this current recording does include another work, and no mean one at that: Aaron Coplandís Organ Symphony. An early work, premiered in 1925 when Copland was merely 23 years old, this was Coplandís first major composition. Copland later re-scored this as his Symphony No. 1. The three movements are all very different. In the first, light strings play a subtle melody, as the organ plays almost a continuo, but so quietly you can almost miss it. The second movement has a snappy tempo, and is rather dance-like at first, with the orchestra taking center-stage, swelling to monumental scale. The organ is, for the most part, in the background, being just another instrument in the orchestra, and not a solo role until the very end of this movement where it has a bit of presence. The final movement, Lento, begins with dense strings, and the organ finally becomes prominent, in full expression. Slow, loud chords are enough to shake the room youíre in, and I can imagine that, in the Davies Hall, where this was performed, the effect must have been impressive. As the movement proceeds, the orchestra becomes imposing and powerful, ending with a powerful punch. While melodically this is a simplistic work, the sound quality, as for the Ives, is excellent.

The Copland is a young composerís work, and, compared to the refinement of Ivesí Concord Sonata - and the orchestration herein - is much less interesting. But the coupling of these two works presents two great American composers writing around the same time. Rather than just having the Concord Symphony on this disc, the addition is welcome. Compared to the Davies recording of the Concord Symphony, Iíd give a few extra points to this current recording, if only for the sound quality which features better definition. But both are excellent. If you donít know this work, and appreciate Ives, this current disc Ė coupled with the Copland - is essential.

Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just music on his blog Kirkville (http://www.mcelhearn.com).

A must for any fan of Ives. The Concord Symphony is a magnificent realization, and the performance here is top-notch.