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 Classical Shop
Pdf booklet included

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 and Hyperion).

To this list must be added James B. Sinclair, whose recordings for Naxos, Koch 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 everywhere.

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 svelte 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 magazine.

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.

Dan Morgan


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