Charles IVES (1874-1954)
They Are There! (1942) [2:59]
Three Places in New England (1910-14, rev. 1929) [19:52]
A Symphony – New England Holidays (1904-13) [40:45]
Baltimore Symphony Chorus
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra / David Zinman
rec. September 1994, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, USA
DECCA 476 1537 [63:56]
I’m delighted to find that Presto Classical have licensed this Ives collection for reissue as part of their on-demand service. I missed the disc first time round, so it’s been good to catch up with it now.
Proceedings begin ebulliently with the Baltimore Symphony Chorus singing They Are There! This is Ives’ revision for chorus of a solo song he wrote in 1917. I believe the text was by Ives himself and it’s a pity that Decca did not include the words in their booklet. The present performance is full-throated.
Three Places in New England is also known as Orchestral Set No 1. The first of the three movements is entitled ‘The “St Gaudens” in Boston Common’. It was inspired by a bronze relief sculpture by Augustin St Gaudens which memorialises the regiment of black volunteer soldiers formed during the Civil War by Col. Robert Gould Shaw. He, along with many of his soldiers, was killed in action at a battle in 1863. The opening is very delicately done by Zinman and the BSO, with oboe, flute and horn solos gently rising from the bed of subdued string tone. Zinman touches in all the detail in Ives’ writing, whether in the hushed opening and close of the piece or in the kaleidoscopic mélange of marching tunes in the middle. The music of ‘Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut’ is beautifully articulated by Zinman and the orchestra; when the raucous brass and percussion take centre stage (after 4:00), there’s tremendous gusto in the performance. Last comes ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’. The piece is named after a poem by Robert Underwood Johnson, one of Ives’ favourite poets. It’s a musical recollection of a walk that Ives and his wife took by the river while on honeymoon, during which they heard hymn-singing from a church on the opposite side of the river. The music is highly atmospheric, especially when the fine melody is heard against a quiet, misty orchestral background. The big, multi-layered climax, when it arrives towards the end of the piece, is powerfully delivered before the brief, almost perfunctory, quiet conclusion. I enjoyed this performance of Three Places in New England very much.
Is the New England Holidays symphony truly a symphony? (In passing, it’s a shame that Gustavo Dudamel didn’t include this work in his fantastic recent set of the four numbered Ives symphonies, about which Dan Morgan so rightly enthused in his review.) The four pieces which comprise it were conceived by Ives as tone poems which could be played independently but, as we shall see, it seems he thought the four pieces could combine to form a symphony. It was not until early in 1954, though, just weeks before the composer’s death, that Antal Doráti and the Minneapolis Symphony first performed all four movements together, in the process giving the world premiere of ‘Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day’. The four pieces work together extremely well, not least because each of the holidays portrayed by Ives comes from one of the four seasons of the year. Thus, in seasonal order we have ‘Washington’s Birthday’ (now Presidents’ Day and celebrated on the third Monday in February); ‘Decoration Day’ (now Memorial Day and celebrated in late May); ‘The Fourth of July’ (Independence Day); and ‘Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day’ (celebrated on the last Thursday in November).
In his authoritative liner notes accompanying Michael Tilson Thomas’s 1986 Chicago Symphony recording of the symphony (CBS MK 42381) Paul Echols cites a comment by Ives after he had completed the sketch of ‘Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day’ in 1904: ‘this made me think of making a kind of Holiday Symphony, each movement based on something of the memory that a man has of his boy holidays’. I wonder if it’s the ‘memory’ aspect that resulted in three of the four movements opening in misty quiet, as if the scenes in question are being recalled from a distant past?
The quiet, wintry opening of ‘Washington’s Birthday’ is very successfully delivered by Zinman; the playing of the Baltimore Symphony is very cultivated and the conductor takes great care over texture and balance. Even as melodic fragments appear, some more prominently than others, one still has the sense of a recollection of a long time ago. It’s only at around 7:00 that a vigorous barn dance breaks out, including popular tunes such as ‘The Camptown Races’. Zinman and the BSO play this section with no little enthusiasm – the Jew’s Harp makes its mark well. ‘Decoration Day’ has now been renamed in the US calendar of public holidays but in Ives’ boyhood it was the occasion when the graves of Civil War veterans would be decorated. The opening recalls the people gathering on the town green in Danbury, Connecticut, so the mood of subdued, pensive recollection is highly appropriate. During the procession to the cemetery the music is dominated by an unexpected minor-key harmonisation of the tune which we best associate with ‘O Come, all ye Faithful’, though here Ives includes the melody as a memory of very different hymn words with which he would have been familiar. Later, the distant bugle call ‘Taps’ is ideally distanced in the recording, as are the bells which accompany the bugler. The full-on representation of the town band, leading everyone back to Danbury is a riot of colour; the BSO brass players have a field day.
The third movement, ‘The Fourth of July’ is the most musically complex, although it’s the shortest piece in the set. Again, Ives begins in a mood of subdued reminiscence. As the piece unfolds, he throws in more and more fragments of popular tunes, not least ‘Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean’. These melodic references, often brief, weave in and out of the listener’s consciousness. The music verges on the anarchic at times but it’s a vivid musical tapestry and here it’s done with great skill and zest. Finally, ‘Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day’ is the longest movement. Uniquely among the set, it starts firmly. Once again, Ives throws in all manner of references to tunes that would have been common currency in his day, some of which are still familiar today. Much of his thematic material derives from hymn tunes and these form the basis of strong, sturdy music. Mid-way through, the affectionate reminiscences of the old Gospel tune ‘The Shining Shore’ is sensitively played by the BSO. Eventually, Zinman leads an exciting build-up to the movement’s grand climax when the choir sings a verse from a hymn, ‘O God, beneath thy guiding hand / Our exiled fathers crossed the sea’. The music here seems to present a vision of ‘a shining city on a hill’ before Ives winds everything down, achieving a bell-decorated reposeful conclusion.
David Zinman’s account of New England Holidays is persuasive. The performance of the four movements has considerable refinement but Ives’ whacky side is done full justice too.
This is a very desirable album and I’m delighted that Presto Classical have restored it to circulation. Decca’s recording, engineered by Simon Eadon and Krzystof Jarosz, is excellent. The booklet notes are good – up to a point. They consist of a conversation about the music between David Zinman and Philippe Danel. Of course, it’s extremely valuable to have the conductor’s insightful thoughts on the music, but I wish Decca had complemented Zinman’s reflections on the music with a good factual note about the works.