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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Symphony No. 1 (1895-1898) [39:56]
Symphony No. 2 (1900-1902) [37:15]
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 2014, Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

I first really became acquainted with the symphonies of Charles Ives in a 4 LP box set from CBS with the works conducted by Ormandy, Bernstein and Stokowski. This was gifted to me by a girlfriend who rejected it as “the most awful noise” and couldn’t bear to have it in her home. That box was already second-hand by the time she must have found it in a charity shop somewhere, as the original collector had used it as a repository for clippings and a 1974 concert programme from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien which Georg Solti would have opened with “Decoration (1912) aus ‘A Symphony: Holydays’”. Ives was and remains a great musical pioneer, and as such open to misunderstanding, but the first two of his symphonies hold onto conventional sonorities from the rich European legacy of the past.

Dan Morgan wasn’t entirely complimentary in his review of this release in its download form, and I’ve heard other critics bemoaning a lack of wit in these performances. There is an excellent resource comparing recordings of the First Symphony here, and the Second Symphony here, and there are plenty of classic recordings to explore. Chandos also competes with itself in these works with their recordings with Neeme Jrvi (review). These are both works with their origins in Ives’s student years, the First Symphony taking clear cues from great predecessors such as Dvořk, and with the flavour of Brahms and others. If you know your Nielsen symphonies you could almost swear that little descending A F# E theme in the Second Symphony might have leaked across to Denmark, and though this is as good as impossible it may give some idea of the character to be found here.

As I hear it, Sir Andrew Davis’s interpretations take that authentic approach, removing the wilder later works from the picture and approaching these scores as serious attempts to create grand personal statements based on the musical influences to hand at the turn of the century and, in the case of the First Symphony, being tamed by the conventions held as gospel by Ives’s teacher Horatio Parker. Parker both restrained the harmonic excesses of his student while at the same time introducing him to the greats of the Germanic tradition. Davis is sensitive to this, and you can hear Brahms in the shaping of the string notes of the melodic lines in the Second Symphony in particular. Ives’s grafting of American tunes onto his Romantic symphonic model has little effect in releasing the work from its historic constraints. Ives wasn’t writing for laughs, and ‘hamming-up’ the nave strangeness and unusual confluence in either of these symphonies doesn’t help their cause. A side-effect of seeking refinement is indeed a loss of boisterous energy, but is that what Ives would have been after at this point?

Unencumbered by controversy and artificially introduced passions but filled with atmospheric expression and full of clarity in their adherence to the letter of these scores, I really quite like these performances, and look forward to what Sir Andrew Davis does with the later symphonies. That twinkle in his eye tells me this series might be starting out as something of a sleeper and, as with Ives himself, the best is yet to come.

Dominy Clements

Another review ...

Charles Ives was a man of extraordinarily wide musical tastes whose scores embrace features from just about every kind of music to which he had been exposed as well as those from his own wonderfully fertile imagination.

For many musicians it is the sense of danger and the unknown that predominates in their performances. In those that appear here, however, I sense above all an especial concern with Ives’ always affectionate relationship with the music he heard around him. Obviously with that of Brahms and Dvořk in these Symphonies, but also, especially in No. 2, with the whole range of more popular sounds with which he was familiar. When he quotes, or more accurately, refers to those sounds it is in a way that suggests that he expects the listener to share a common background so that they will immediately think not just of the tune being referred to but also of its social context. Coming from a different country and time I lack that common background, but the music has the power nonetheless to convey to me some idea of what is being implied by the quotation or reference.

It is this aspect of the music that is brought out so well in these performances. Not that the more abrasive and exuberant aspects are ignored, but there is a real feeling of affection for the music and for what it represents. I have known the Second Symphony from its original issue in the 1960s when I borrowed a copy from the much lamented library of USIS (United States Information Service) in Grosvenor Square (at a time when my friends were demonstrating outside it against the Vietnam war). That recording – Bernstein’s first, much better than the flaccid later version – is still a favourite of mine as it managed to reveal both aspects of the music. Most later versions that I have heard have seemed to be more concerned with its pioneering aspects, missing its gentler, companionable, side. I have gained immense pleasure from this new version, and even more from the Symphony No. 1 which is treated unapologetically as a product of a man with a real love and understanding of the Central European idioms on which so much of it is based.

This is arguably not a complete picture of Ives, but I am doubtful, with such a multi-faceted composer, that any one performance will provide that. It is nonetheless immensely enjoyable and superbly recorded. I note that it is referred to on the cover of the booklet as “Orchestral Works 1”. I cannot image anyone hearing it who will not be awaiting later volumes with impatience.
John Sheppard

Previous review: Dan Morgan