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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Complete Symphonies
Symphony No 1 (1895-1898) [36:24]
Symphony No 2 (1900-1902) [35:49]
Symphony No 3 ‘The Camp Meeting’ (1904) [21:21]
Symphony No 4 (1912-1925) [30:53]
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Gustavo Dudamel (with Marta Gardolińska in No 4)
rec. live, February 2020, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, USA
Reviewed as a 24/96 download
No booklet
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 9505 [2 CDs: 124:00]

It’s good to have Ives’s four numbered symphonies in one place. This new set joins the even more comprehensive 4-CD box of the composer’s orchestral works with the Chicago and Concertgebouw Orchestras conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (Sony 19439788332). Anyone familiar with the individual performances, recorded between 1981 and 1989, will know that MTT is a committed and compelling Ivesian. Sir Andrew Davis also excels in this repertoire, as his memorable ‘Ives Weekend’ at the Barbican in January 1996 so amply demonstrates. I’ve reviewed his recent Chandos cycle with the Melbourne Symphony, which, despite uncompetitive accounts of Nos 1 and 2, delivers fine ones of Nos 3 and 4. And don’t overlook Andrew Litton and the Dallas SO’s traversal, set down between 2004 and 2006 (Hyperion CDA67525/67540). These idiomatic, superbly recorded live performances are central to any self-respecting Ives collection. Ditto Ludovic Morlot’s very recent - albeit incomplete - live series with the Seattle Symphony (SSM). Here is my review of what ‘Sir Mixalot’ has recorded to date. That soubriquet derives from the Frenchman’s penchant for eclectic programmes; his creative Ives concerts are no exception.

I first encountered the Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel at the BBC Proms in 2007, where he and his Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra presented an intoxicating selection of music from - and inspired by - South America. Fiesta, released in 2008 - and one of my top picks for that year - is a wonderful reminder of an extraordinary night. And while the Dude’s Mahler recordings for Deutsche Grammophon are somewhat variable, his ‘Resurrection’, performed with the newly renamed Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra at the Proms in 2011, was simply unforgettable. Likewise the LAPO/SBSO Eighth, filmed in Caracas in 2012. (And yes, that was a Recording of the Year as well.) Admittedly, Dudamel may have given us a few duds, but, as I’ve indicated, he’s also capable of top-notch performances. As for his forays into American music, they’ve been well received on these pages. John Quinn welcomed his contributions to the Berliner Philharmoniker’s John Adams Edition - a Recording of the Month - and Göran Forsling found much to enjoy in the 2-CD set, Celebrating John Williams, recorded live with the LAPO in 2019. Fine composers both, but Charles Ives is perhaps more of a challenge. Which begs the question: is the Dude up to the task?

Well, if his account of Symphony No 1 is anything to go by, the answer is an emphatic yes. The Allegro is alive with incident and character, that recurring theme disarming in its blend of ease and elegance. Goodness, how fresh and unassuming this music sounds, the LAPO in splendid form. (Indeed, I’ve not heard them play this well in ages.) And even at this early stage, it’s clear Dudamel really knows his way around the score; pacing is natural, phrases are attractively shaped and dynamics are nicely calibrated. Add to that a lightness of touch and it’s little wonder the work feels newly minted. The Adagio is tenderly done, and the Scherzo: Vivace has a Puckish charm that’s impossible to resist. The Venezuelan then delivers a beautifully sprung, cannily constructed finale, whose closing celebrations are all the more effective for being so crisply executed. Others are more unbuttoned here - Litton springs to mind - but then Dudamel never pushes too hard at times like this. As for the recording itself, the soundstage is both broad and deep, with players given plenty of room to breathe. (A far cry from the close, sometimes relentless presentation of the Paavo Järvi/Frankfurt RSO set of Schmidt symphonies I reviewed last year.)

If anything, Symphony No 2 is even more alluring, the dark bass-led string figures in the Andante moderato wonderfully expressive. Indeed, I’d say the LAPO strings - so refined and full-bodied - outplay their rivals in New York, Chicago, Dallas and Seattle. The well-blended brass section is also in a class of its own, Ives’s chorales superbly rendered. The spry little Allegro that follows is a delight, its contrasting visions of church steeples and marching bands as vivid as one could wish. The orchestra then gives gentle and affecting voice to the symphony’s central movement, marked Adagio cantabile. (That cello solo is simply gorgeous.) The Lento maestoso has real heft, and the finale is supremely well paced. With that concert still fresh in my mind, I revisited Leonard Bernstein’s classic CBS recording of the piece, made with the New York Phil in the 1960s. Two things struck me at once: first, how much Lenny misses in this music, and, second, just how much the Dude reveals. Goodness, Ives performances have come a long way in that time.

I’m happy to report that all the fine qualities that define Dudamel’s Ives thus far persist in his open-hearted account of Symphony No 3, ‘The Camp Meeting’. The conductor is at his sensitive - and intuitive - best, his approach yielding and affectionate but never mawkish. ‘The Old Folks Gathering’ has a genteel charm, the scene observed with a mix of familiarity and keen-eyed interest. As before, the Dude brings out all the score’s colours and competing strands, not to mention the symphony’s guileless, unassuming nature. (In fact, I can’t recall this music better pitched than it is here.) ‘Children’s Day’, a lively Allegro, is deftly done, its transparent textures perfectly complemented by a ‘hear-through’ recording that picks out every nudge and nuance. As if that weren’t impressive enough, these ardent Angelenos really excel in the final movement, ‘Communion’. At times they sound like a large chamber group, the players closely attuned to each other, their collective progress and point of arrival never in doubt. Really, this is music-making of an uncommon order, the closing moments as radiant - and reposeful - as I’ve ever heard them.

And now for the pičce de résistance, Symphony No 4, with its celebrated fusion of hymns, marches and popular tunes. A preliminary listen confirmed that Dudamel and his assistant conductor, Marta Gardolińska, have everything firmly under control. (To be fair, I’ve yet to come across a performance that wasn’t properly managed, but then that’s only half the battle.) The start of the Prelude is wonderfully sonorous, the Master Chorale’s singing incisive and idiomatic. At this point, and at many others, the performance seems all the more rewarding for being well prepared and sensibly executed. Take the organ, for instance: where others may strive for an overwhelming presence, the Venezuelan prefers a more discreet balance that works very well in the context of his reading as a whole. Alas, discretion isn’t an option in the dissonances and contrasting rhythms of Comedy, although even at its loudest and most complex, every element of Ives’s score is effortlessly caught by DG’s recording team. (As a rule I like to credit those in the control room, but that’s not possible without a booklet.) The Fugue is full of feeling, the strings digging deep, their delivery as sure and seamless as ever. In common with the other performances here, the level of Dudamel’s authority and insight is just extraordinary. As for the finale, there’s an irresistibility to his reading - a deep, tugging undertow, if you will - that few rivals can match. The choir and organ are simply magnificent at the end. The applause has been edited out of these concerts, but I’d wager all of them, the last one especially, were enthusiastically received.

Without doubt, the most important Ives release in years; world-class playing too, with a sound to match.

Dan Morgan

 

 



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