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Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Three Places in New England (1912-1916 rev. 1929)
The Unanswered Question (1908 rev. 1935)
A Set of Pieces for theatre or chamber orchestra (1915)
Symphony No 3 ‘The Camp Meeting’ (1901-4 rev. 1911)
Set No 1 (1912)
Gilbert Kalish (piano)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
rec. 1993, Performing Arts Center, State University of New York, USA
Presto CD

More than any other composer, Ives seems to have made his music out of the music he had heard as a child, which included hymns, marches, folk songs and all kinds of popular music with very little of what we could consider classical. As a composer, he was, of course, perfectly capable of composing in a traditional idiom, and did so occasionally, but much more characteristic was for him to apply modernistic techniques to these materials, truncating them, overlaying them, playing about with the rhythms and using very dissonant harmonies. The resulting works can be very complex, and I was amazed that the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which is celebrated for performing without a conductor, was able put together a programme of them.

Their emphasis in this programme is on Ives’s compositional skills rather than on the wild and noisy writing for which he is perhaps more celebrated. Two works which come off particularly well with this approach are The Unanswered Question and the third symphony. The Unanswered Question is a strange piece. In a live performance what you see on the platform is see four flutes and a body of strings. Offstage is a muted trumpet which issues its call seven times while the flutes make stronger and stronger responses. It is a strange and haunting piece which comes off very well here.

So does the third symphony, which I think is the most successful of Ives’ four numbered symphonies. This draws on Bach’s chorales and organ preludes with which Ives was very familiar as he had been a church organist for years. The predominant technique is that of weaving together different themes, usually two in each of the three movements. The first movement is the most complex, while the second is playful and the third a little more complex but still attractive. The writing is tonal and gentle and the whole work is beautifully played.

Ives liked writing short orchestral pieces which he collected into what he called Sets. There are two of them here. There are two of them here. These are more challenging, in a manner which reminded me strongly of Stravinsky in the Soldier’s Tale or the Four Orchestral Pieces: sharp fragments, incisive rhythms with the occasional dislocation. The Set of Pieces is the more substantial work, with three numbers, while Set No 1 is really a collection of squibs. One of these, Like a Sea Eagle, is, for a change, not Stravinskian but highly chromatic and intense in the manner of late Scriabin. These pieces all seem to be earlier than the Stravinsky ones, though it is hard to be sure because Ives was an inveterate reviser and most of his works were only published long after their composition.

Three Places in New England, which opens the programme, is, I think, Ives’ finest single orchestral work and possibly his finest work altogether. The two outer movements are in a version of the same dreamy idiom which gave us The Unanswered Question, the first evoking a monument to black soldiers in the American civil war and the last a walk in the country which Ives took with his wife. The middle movement evokes Putnam’s Camp, the winter base of General Putnam’s camp in the revolutionary war. It begins briskly with a marching band and later has the notorious passage in which two quite different ideas are played simultaneously. I remember hearing and seeing Boulez conduct it, and in this passage he beat different rhythms with each hand. This comes off well here, but many critics, including some on MWI, think the Orpheus are too polished and polite, and that Ives wanted something altogether more raucous. The issue is similar to that with some passages in Mahler’s symphonies: do you focus on the wildness or on the compositional craft? Tastes may differ and the same person may prefer different things at different times. Incidentally, presumably Orpheus played the small orchestra version of Three Places, and the listener might also like to have a recording of the full orchestra version, of which there are several.

I liked all these performances, though I think The Unanswered Question and the third symphony come off best. The booklet, which I have been drawing on, is very helpful in giving the background to all the works and listing the various hymns and other material which Ives drew on; however, I don’t think enjoying the works depends at all on recognizing them, which I suspect even Americans may not necessarily be able to do. The recording is luminous and the whole disc a tribute to the compositional skill of Ives.

Stephen Barber

Published: October 11, 2022

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