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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Orchestral Set No. 1: Three Places in New England (1912-1916, rev. 1929) [19:32]
Orchestral Set No. 2 (1915-1919) [16:23]
A Symphony: New England Holidays (1904-1913) [42:08]
Seattle Symphony Chorale
Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot
rec. 11, 13 & 14 February 2016 (Set 1), 15 & 17 June 2016 (Set 2), 1 & 2 February 2017 (Holidays), S. Mark Taper Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington, USA
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
SEATTLE SYMPHONY MEDIA SSM1015 [78:03]

Huzzah! At last, the third instalment in Ludovic Morlot’s Ives cycle. In a double review I praised the first two albums, and would have made them Recordings of the Year if our canny Webmaster hadn’t noticed that I was trying to sneak in two nominations for the price of one. Levity aside, this has proved to be an impressive series thus far; insightful, idiomatic and always engaging, those readings seem more consistent than Sir Andrew Davis’s Melbourne ones (Chandos). The latter improved as they progressed, though: I was lukewarm about Volume 1, more enthusiastic about Volume 2, and very taken with Volume 3.

Which brings me to Davis’s ‘Ives Weekend’, broadcast from the Barbican in January 1996. I’ve repeatedly referred to this – I possess an off-air recording of the entire event – as it so emphatically confirms this conductor’s Ivesian credentials. Almost without exception, these are powerful, pithy performances that leap off the page in a way that his Melbourne remakes rarely do. Even the BBC Radio 3 sound is excellent, making this an indispensable addition to the Ives archive. Faint hope, I know, but it would be good if the Beeb made these recordings available to a wider audience, perhaps as cover-mounted CDs on their music magazine.

In the meantime, we owe much to James B. Sinclair and Michael Tilson Thomas, who have done much to advance the cause of this musical maverick. My preferred recording of the two Orchestral Sets is Sinclair’s, made with the Malmö Symphony in 2006/7 (Naxos). As for the New England Holidays, I’ve chosen as my comparative version MTT’s Chicago one, recorded for CBS-Sony in 1986. I’ll probably dip into the two Davises along the way.

The three parts of the first set, composed between 1912 and 1916, weren’t conceived as a single work; in any event, the consolidated piece only gained traction much later, when Ives was persuaded to rework it for reduced forces; the revised score was published in 1935. The version played by Morlot and Sinclair is the latter’s realisation for large orchestra (listed as Version 4 in The Descriptive Catalogue); those who want to hear the pared-down one should investigate Sinclair’s recording with Orchestra New England on Koch 3-7025-2. As I’ve pointed out before, these three ‘scenes’ are very specific, the images preserved -  fixed, if you will – in the darkroom of the composer’s musical imagination. Indeed, all the pieces played here are taken from the family album.

Morlot captures the brooding character of the opening movement in the first set very well indeed; he may seem a little measured at times, but the upside is that there’s a decent pulse and details are crisply rendered. He doesn’t shrink from those sudden dissonances either, the sound full and fearless. This piece is a gallimaufry of popular and hymn tunes, not to mention marching bands, the collisions of the second movement a veritable riot of sound. And although Morlot has his players on a tight rein, he manages to balance discipline with dash and daring. But it’s the finale, underpinned by a thrilling organ pedal, that sets the seal on this terrific performance.

In terms of colour and tempo, Morlot is closer to Sinclair than either of the Davises, but in the first movement at least Sinclair finds a telling degree of transparency as well. The Malmö band aren’t quite as polished as their Seattle counterparts, but they more than make up for that with their wonderfully idiomatic and spontaneous playing. Then again, Sinclair has an authority in this music that’s unmistakable, and that manifests itself in a naturally shaped and perfectly coherent performance. He’s also more refined than Morlot, yet he never blunts that all-important Ivesian edge.

As I discovered in my recent review of Leonard Slatkin’s new account of Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony, listening to rival recordings in close proximity can be very instructive. I stand by my positive response to Morlot’s reading of the first set, but listening to Sinclair’s soon afterwards I was struck by how quintessentially American he and his sensational Swedes make this music sound, and how startlingly original. And that’s why this is still the most complete account of the piece I know; indeed, I’d say it’s not likely to be bettered – let alone equalled – any time soon. That also goes for the warm, spacious Naxos recording, which I prefer to SSM’s closer, cooler one.

If anything, Sinclair widens the gap in the second set, which he presents with all the clarity, care and expressive power that makes his Ives so special. The first movement has the solemn, processional weight it needs, and the second, with its contrasting metres and distinctive piano part, is superbly articulated. As always, he brings out the sheer audacity of Ives’s writing. That said, conductor and composer are at their most inspired in the third movement, in which New York rail commuters and a panoply of ‘voices’ – including an offstage choir – respond to news about the sinking of the Lusitania. Indeed, Sinclair creates a deep, gathering swell of emotion here that’s profoundly moving.

Can Morlot hope to match that? No, is the short answer. For a start, he brings an almost metronomic precision to his performance that underplays the music’s innate warmth and character. Moreover, the second movement, usually so bright and breezy, sounds slightly contrived when heard alongside Sinclair or Davis. All of which conspires to leach that astonishing finale of its essential feeling. In mitigation, the virtuosity and focus of the Seattle players is pretty impressive. I did wonder whether this unexpected fall-off in quality has something to do with the fact that, unlike the first set, the recording of the second isn’t derived from concerts alone.

As for New England Holidays, it’s 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 really underlines the stark modernity of Ives’s writing here; he also finds a modicum of refinement behind those unruly notes. As for those jaunty tunes, they emerge with a vigour and vitality that I don’t always hear with Morlot. Factor in a wonderful, chamber-like transparency to the Chandos recording and you have a very fine performance

To be fair, the Frenchman is reasonably convincing in his blend of leanness and lyricism – especially in the first movement – but for all that his reading is too unyielding for me, his colours curiously muted. Yes, Morlot does loosen up a little in that marvellous medley – De Camptown Races prominent in the mix – but, alas, it doesn’t last. Davis and MTT seem to have a much surer grasp of the symphony’s architecture, not to mention a lighter touch when it comes to its defiant –  and defining –  quirks and quiddities. As with that second set, Morlot has the letter of the piece, but misses its irrepressible spirit. (Incidentally, this recording isn’t derived solely from concerts either.)

I’d hoped for another cracker from Seattle, and while this is by no means a damp squib it’s still very disappointing. Even SSM’s up-to-the minute recording must yield to its older, more atmospheric rivals, MTT’s in particular. Indeed, in terms of both performance and sound the latter’s New England Holidays – admittedly, I’ve yet to hear his San Francisco remake – remains my benchmark for this extraordinary work. The Seattle album has decent liner-notes by Larry Starr and, most gratifying, a footnote pointing listeners to Scott Mortensen’s excellent Ives survey for MusicWeb.

Not at all what I expected; something of a let-down after such a promising start.

Dan Morgan



 

 




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