Charles IVES (1874-1954) A Symphony: New England Holidays (1904-1913) [39:04] Central Park in the Dark (1906) (edition prepared by John Kirkpatrick and Jacques-Louis Monod) [8:07] Orchestral Set No. 1: Three Places in New England (1912-1916, rev. 1929) (version for large orchestra realised and edited by James B. Sinclair) [19:43] The Unanswered Question (1906) (ed. Paul C. Echols and Noel Zahler) [5:02]
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. April 2015, Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University & Hamer Hall, The Arts Centre, Melbourne, Australia
Reviewed as a 24/96 Studio Master from The
Pdf booklet included CHANDOS CHSA5163 SACD [72:27]
Charles Ives, maverick and musical magpie, is one of the
most startling figures in American musical history. It was a long time
coming, but thanks to the advocacy of fellow composers Henry Cowell
and Howard Hanson – not to mention the conductors Nicolas Slonimsky,
Harold Farberman and Leonard Bernstein – Ives’s quirky oeuvre
began to reach a wider public. It was Bernstein who really promoted
his compatriot’s music with a number of recordings for CBS/Sony
and, later, for Deutsche
Grammophon. He also talked about Ives, as a quick trawl of YouTube
will confirm. And don’t forget the work of Lenny’s protégé
Michael Tilson Thomas (CBS/Sony,
DG and SFS
Media) and Andrew Litton (Dorian
To this list must be added James B. Sinclair, whose recordings for Naxos,
and others have garnered much praise in recent years. As an Ives devotee
and scholar he’s also produced a catalogue of the composer’s
works and contributed to critical editions of these scores. He’s
joined in this grand editorial enterprise by Jonathan Elkus, John Kirkpatrick,
Jacques-Louis Monod, Paul C. Echols, Noel Zahler and Wayne D. Shirley.
Theirs is a challenging task; for instance, in preparing the large-orchestra
version of Three Places in New England, Sinclair had to work
from both the original score – much of which is lost – and
the composer’s later revision for chamber forces. The work of
his fellow editors/arrangers are well represented in this new recording.
One of Ives’s greatest champions outside the US is Sir Andrew
Davis, whose 'Ives weekend' at the Barbican in January 1996 was a revelation
to us all. The event was recorded by BBC Radio 3, whose broadcasts I
referred to in my review
of the first instalment of Davis’s Melbourne cycle. That release
certainly had a lot to live up to; alas, I found it somewhat disappointing,
although Dominy Clements was far more complimentary (review).
Incidentally, the Radio 3 team did a pretty good job all those years
ago. I’m indebted to my friend and Ives aficionado Bryn Harris
for providing me with off-air recordings of that marvellous event.
Ives’s Holidays Symphony, published in 1913, is a collage
of childhood memories framed in the composer’s inimitable style;
often spare, with snippets of popular music and other borrowings, it’s
a thoroughly original and engaging piece. Davis emphasises the stark
modernity of this music while also finding a modicum of refinement behind
those unruly notes. There’s a chamber-like transparency and concentration
to the playing here that’s very impressive, and the jaunty tunes
emerge with a spontaneity that I didn’t always sense in Davis’s
earlier album. A small point, though: I found that cranking up the quiet
passages had me lunging for the volume control in the louder ones.
One has to remember that although the four movements are gathered together
as a symphony they are self-contained entities that weren’t designed
to be played that way. Washington’s Birthday was penned
in 1909 and subsequently rescored, while Decoration Day, with
its trademark marching bands, was written in 1912 and then rearranged
for full orchestra. The Fourth of July, which also dates from
1912, needed no such work as it was originally scored for full orchestra.
As for Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day, completed in
1904, it has its roots in two much earlier works for organ.
Davis’s Melbourne account of the Holidays Symphony certainly
reinforces the discrete nature of the piece; each movement is bracing,
the two inner ones especially so. However, comparing this with his London
performance is most instructive; where the former seems less analytical
at times – a matter of recording balance, not necessarily an interpretive
choice – the latter lays the music bare in a way that’s
just astonishing. Not only that, the BBC Symphony are rather more comfortable
in this repertoire than their Australian counterparts. It may seem odd
to compare a commercial recording available to all with a set of off-air
tapes accessible to just a few, but I want listeners to know just how
revelatory Davis can be in this repertoire. Also, these radio recordings
are an extremely valuable resourse that needs to be known to Ivesians
Ives is one of those all-or-nothing composers, and he demands to be
played that way. Take the finale of that Barbican performance, for instance;
structurally robust and complex yet clarifying, it has a very distinctive
Ivesian cast that makes this a holiday to remember. I know it’s
not entirely fair to compare a live recording with a studio one, but
in this case it points to what’s missing this time around. Just
listen to that fervent Thanksgiving hymn; to me it sounds far more 'authentic'
in London than it does in Melbourne. Indeed, I found the Australian
choir somewhat lacking in body and character. And that’s the nub
of it; in this symphony at least Davis Mk. 1 is all about oomph and
idiom, qualities that are harder to discern in Davis Mk. 2.
My go-to disc of this piece is Michael Tilson Thomas’s Chicago
one, recorded in 1986 (CBS/Sony).
The CSO are more couth than their British and antipodean counterparts,
but is that necessarily a good thing? David Zinman’s Baltimore
recording – deemed worthy of a Penguin Rosette – would suggest
not; the latter is just so bland and uneventful compared with his distinguished
rivals. MTT is in another league entirely, especially in the symphony’s
jollier moments; he finds plenty of lyricism here too. Also, the CBS
recording is far livelier and more forensic than the Chandos one. For
me, though, Davis Mk. 1 captures the poke-’em-in-the-eye precocity
of the piece better than anyone I know.
Despite my equivocations about that Melbourne opener I'm delighted to
report that Davis Mk. 2 is splendid in both Central Park in the
Dark and The Unanswered Question. That said, MTT and his
Chicagoans are pretty good too, even if their version of Central
park is a little too moulded for my tastes. That’s not a
criticism I’d level at either of Davis’s performances of
The Unanswered Question. The Melbourne flutes have a jagged
brilliance, the trumpet a haunting desolation, that’s just riveting.
Remarkably, Davis Mk. 1 is even finer; there he invites us to peer into
the music’s inner workings in a way that’s uniquely rewarding.
It’s a relief to find Davis and his Australian players on form
in that moody diptych - they were originally paired as two Contemplations
- even if the recording lacks the important spatial clues that make
MTT’s versions so evocative. Listening to these various performances
I was reminded that sound quality can so easily influence one’s
perceptions of a given piece. Heretical it may be, but I'm convinced
that newcomers to the Ivesian universe would learn more about this music
via Radio 3 in 1996 than Chandos in 2015. Even old hands will find much
to marvel at in those broadcasts. Now if only the Beeb could find a
way to make them available, perhaps as cover-mounted CDs on their monthly
That weekend Oliver Knussen was entrusted with the chamber version of
Ives’s Orchestral Set No. 1: Three Places in New England.
However, collectors who want a good commercial recording of the work
in that form should seek out Sinclair’s performance with Orchestra
New England on Koch
3-7025-2. He’s also recorded his reconstruction of the original
large-orchestra score with the Malmo Symphony Orchestra on Naxos
8.559353; I’ll refer to it in the course of this review, along
with MTT’s Boston account on DG. Scott Mortensen certainly rated
the latter very highly in his Ives
survey for MusicWeb International.
Unfortunately Three Places in New England only received wider
recognition when, at Slonimsky's behest, the composer rescored it for
reduced forces. The movement titles are very specific – there's
nothing generic about these scenes which, apropos of Bernard Herrmann’s
comments, resemble crisp, clear photographs taken on the day and fixed
in Ives’s musical imagination. It’s a glorious melange,
alternating between reflection and revelry, that finds Davis and his
Melbournians at their very best. In particular the marches that dominate
Putnam’s Camp erupt with a roisterous clangour that’s
well caught by the Chandos team. Dynamic, provocative and hugely entertaining,
this is definitely one for the album.
I enjoyed that Orchestral Set so much that I was tempted to
forgo the promised comparisons. For what it’s worth Sinclair’s
Malmo recording complements Davis’s rather nicely. His response
to The ‘St-Gaudens’ in Boston Common is darker,
with a measured tread, but Ives’s distinctive sonorities are even
more striking than usual. The Naxos sound is bigger, noticeably so in
the central movement; that said, I prefer Chandos’s extra sparkle
and transparency here. Also, Davis seems more unbuttoned – more
volatile, even – although Sinclair does bring a splendid, hymn-like
gravitas to The Housatonic at Stockbridge. Thanks to 'the Davis
effect' MTT’s Boston version, recorded for DG in 1970, now seems
less appealing than it once did.
I’m much more taken with the second volume of this Melbourne cycle
than I was with the first. I still have some reservations about his
performance of the Holidays Symphony – after all, he’s
done it so much better elsewhere – but the rest of this programme
is as good as it gets. Some Ivesians were irked when Davis didn’t
use the critical edition of Symphony No. 1 in his Melbourne
recording. No issues here, though; all the editions used are listed
in the booklet.
Davis reaffirms his Ivesian credentials with this instalment; augurs
well for the next one.