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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
A Symphony: New England Holidays (1909-19) [39:04]
Central Park in the Dark (1906-09) [8:07]
Orchestral Set No. 1: Three Places in New England (1912-17) [19:43]
The Unanswered Question (1906-09) [5:02]
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 30 March-2 April 2015, Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, Melbourne, and 8, 8, 11, 13 April 2015, Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, Victoria, Australia (Three Places in New England).

The critics were divided as to the merits of Volume 1 in this series. However, I relish its grown-up approach to Charles Ives, delivering his scores with the same kind of artistic seriousness as a conductor might with the symphonies of Bruckner and revealing the elements of Americana the composer desired without turning them into a mad-cap circus.

New England Holidays is a case in point, with much of the music being deeply atmospheric and expressive, and those emergent popular marching-band moments as much a feature of the musical material as they might have been if used by Alban Berg. Sir Andrew Davis seems invested in this point of view, and while those competing tunes come through clearly you are more likely to feel the hairs on the back of your neck rise at their effect than to raise any kind of a laugh. The seeming chaos at the end of the third movement The Fourth of July is more a presage of Schnittke's musical madness and the US's current paranoia than something festive. This is followed by grim relentlessness in the opening to Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day. The magnificently cheesy close to this work is release of a kind, but in a performance of this nature it still has more power to affect and shock than you would have expected.

Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question were conceived as companion pieces, and they are both justifiably popular as musical statements that seem to lean over the parapet of our imaginations and leer into our darker, more chilling innermost worlds. Central Park in the Dark's ever-shifting moodiness and loopy climax is done well here, though there are arguably some balance issues between winds and strings. The Unanswered Question is similarly well performed, though why the flutes are recorded quite so close-up is a mystery. Part of the magic of this piece is the way the 'solo' voices integrate into and emerge from the impassive chorale of the Druids. Here we are beaten over the head by every contribution of the ever-demanding flutes, pumped-up like steroid-hyped beefcakes in a gym. Alas, this is a missed opportunity.

Like many of Ives's scores, Orchestral Set No. 1: Three Places in New England has had a chequered history, the result here being a reconstruction by Yale scholar James B. Sinclair, who is responsible for numerous performing editions of works that might otherwise have lingered in obscurity. Potent darker atmosphere is a given in this recording in line with the qualities of the rest of the CD, but there are also bags of lively energy in Putnam's Camp. While I'll admit that the swagger here is more inter-war central European than US Patriot I'm still knocked out by the playing in this performance. The SACD sound quality is a real boon, and with detail preserved even at passages of peak volume you can count me as a happy customer.

Dan Morgan's review of this release points towards numerous alternatives of varying classic status for these works, so I won't go over the same ground here. The only work on this recording which for me is ruined by unsympathetic recording balance is The Unanswered Question, and I would perhaps point towards Leonard Bernstein's admittedly slightly noisy recording on Sony Classical with the New York Philharmonic for a more authentic experience. Avoid the Seattle Symphony Media recording under Ludovic Morlot (review) and others which - in my opinion - ruin the work by using the version with B-flat rather than C as the last note of the trumpet part.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Dan Morgan


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