IVES Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 • Sir Andrew Davis, cond; Melbourne Symphony Orchestra • CHANDOS CHSA 5152 (SACD 77:28)
What does the music of Charles Ives sound like with an Australian orchestra and a British conductor? Different, one is tempted to to say, but not really. We’ve become used to our Ives done New York style, with Broadway snap and brass. No one gets that wrong. But Ives was a New Englander, and the disruptive elements in his music have perhaps been overstressed. He always explained that bits of band marches and Americana in the Second Symphony were present to remind him of his youth, not shock Horatio parker, his music teacher. And the famous razzy “non-chord” at the end was meant to evoke dance bands sending everyone home with a screech–not annoy the professor!
So I am happy to report that if the Second Symphony, in particular, sounds more like Mendelssohn and Dvořák than I have heard before, it is a good thing. These performances are delightful from beginning to end. Beyond that, they are delicate and pretty–not normal Ives adjectives. Listeners brought up on Leonard Bernstein’s famous 1960 performance might think the Melbourne Symphony underpowered here, but I find the music gorgeous this way. The woodwinds are light as a feather and the brasses mysteriously soft and gentle the louder they play. Everything is deft and sonorous. As a result the hymn tunes, Columbia and even Reveille have lost their bumptious edge. Instead they just interweave with beauty. Sometimes they sound jaunty. This is a new way to do Ives.
Sir Andrew’s performance of the First Symphony reveals the same virtues. The symphony is a largely student work, tyrannized into academic boxes by the aforesaid Horatio Parker, so it has pedantic boundaries. But even so, Ives’s mastery of counterpoint into something bouncy and memorable, notable during the first movement and near the end, is a sign of mastery to come. His desire to hear many things at once was evidently sincere and not a mechanical response to his teacher.
The sound here is limpid and beautiful. And the Melbourne Symphony already hints at the soft sonorities Sir Andrew obtained during his BBC Symphony years. I hope this partnership will soon bring us the remaining Ives symphonies. Not doing so would be a blunder from down under.
IVES Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4. The Unanswered Question. Central Park in the Dark • Ludovic Morlot, cond; Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorus • SEATTLE SYMPHONY MEDIA SSM1009 (71:49) Live: Seattle 2014/2015
Nothing is so American as “thinking outside the box”. And no music plays “outside” it better than the works of Charles Ives. Immerse yourself in the glorious jumble of his sonorities and almost every thread of music history and its future is to be found there: Bach’s counterpoint, hopeful Protestant chorales, Scriabin’s questing otherworldliness, Respighi’s chaotic public square, Berg’s morose dissonances, Stravinsky’s rhythms, Arthur Murray’s fox-trots, and even Leonard Bernstein’s Puerto Rican youth gangs (note how the percussion gathers itself to run you down the street a few minutes into the Fourth Symphony.)
The apotheosis of all this is the Fourth, composed between 1910 and 1924, but not performed and recorded before Leopold Stokowski did so in 1965. I still have a fondness for his groundbreaking recording, with its especially rich and moving third movement hymn. But it can’t compete sonically with the magnificent clarity of Benaroya Hall on this new CD nor top the lovely sonority and insight Ludovic Morlot displays here. This is the best Ives Fourth I have heard–a perfect emotional arc.
Morlot combines high energy with an ability to make the dissonances gleam–not the usual notion experienced–assault more typically comes to mind. And rich bass pedal-support, lovely choral textures and reverberation from Benaroya Hall embrace the listener and clarify the music’s direction at the same time. The Seattle Symphony may now have the best recording venue in the United States. It’s soundstage here reminds me of Symphony Hall, Boston. And the playing, recorded live, is spectacularly flawless. This pays real dividends for Central Park in the Dark, as well.
Despite “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean”, which seems to appear everywhere in Ives, I think Morlot’s French sensibility is the key. His Unanswered Question is as beautiful as Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The “questioners”, you might say, display good elocution. Usually, they interrupt like hecklers! This refinement is helpful everywhere. We don’t normally think of Ives as beautiful. But here every little thing is polished. And to his credit, Morlot is not thrown off by counterpoint into the habit of plodding through it.
I’m thinking of the Third Symphony, which is often played without understanding. It has depths we shouldn’t ignore. If Mahler had been American, maybe he would have begun the last movement with similar chromatic sadness. I’m fond of the old Ormandy (you can find it on Amazon) for its fast pace and simplicity of nostalgia: beautiful, regretful Philadelphia woodwinds. A favorite is Andrew Litton on Hyperion, extremely slow but heartfelt and romantic. Alternative versions by Michael Tilson Thomas, James Sinclair–and Ludovic Morlot here–make use of the optional “harmonics”, eerie mind-trick off-key musical thoughts which hover creepily over a few critical cadences. It’s just enough of a buzz to disturb the equanimity of one’s response to the music and make you wonder if there were drunks in church. Bottoms up!
IVES New England Holidays Symphony. Central Park in the Dark. Three Places In New England. The Unanswered Question • Sir Andrew Davis, cond; Melbourne Symphony Orchestra • CHANDOS CHSA5163 (72:27)
Charles Ives was a ground-breaking national composer whose ideas became international–probably surprising even him. It wasn’t so much American folk tunes and religious hymns which captured the world’s attention coming from his hand–but the way they were juxtaposed and treated. Ives’s ability to extract metaphysical emotion from dubious marching bands practicing on a field and snatches of prayer captured on the fly was something new. This was not folk musical in the usual sense–no frolicking peasants. It’s as if Ives distilled from our national melodies instead the harmonic essence of being American–I often think of his music as taking place at night, even when it doesn’t sound like it–for it speaks to some undercurrent of depth we carry within us and to that special American something which knows the thrill and loneliness of personal adventure.
A piece like The Unanswered Question travels especially well outside the United States–even if there is something quintessentially American about explaining the universe in five minutes. The four woodwind “philosophers” are recognizable types, irritating and quarrelsome professors whose dyspeptic burblings so annoy the string chorale that it eventually simply veers away from them! And I can report here that Andrew Davis has no problem with it.
But my overall impression of the rest of the program is that it sounds beautiful but not quite American. I reviewed Davis’ earlier CD of the first two Ives symphonies. They owe a lot to Schumann and Brahms, so a string dominated approach worked well. But Holidays, Three Places in New England and Central Park in the Dark require the sheer abandon of college brass bands and a bit of acoustic distance–so one can feel the chill of loneliness and nostalgia. Here we are served-up gorgeous thick string chords with soft brass and velvet woodwinds hidden in the textures. It’s all rich and rounded and up close–and in the process a bit careful. It sounds like a solid afternoon of Alban Berg and Hindemith.
A quick comparison with the field shows a different balance “tilt” in performances by Andrew Litton and Michael Tilson Thomas. Both favor an authentically American brass not afraid to let go and sashay. Putnam’s Camp seems stodgy here by comparison, uncomfortable with its own disorder. The Housatonic should flow better. And MTT breaks your heart in Decoration Day in some lonely way that Davis misses, perhaps because of that same reluctance totally to unbend. But in favor of this CD is very good and clear playing and an ability to follow everything that happens. Ironically, Andrew Davis’s own very interesting notes point out that Ives, himself, scarcely cared!
COPLAND Billy the Kid. Rodeo. El salón México. An Outdoor Overture • Andrew Litton, cond; Colorado Symphony Orchestra • BIS-2164 (71:26)
Aaron Copland’s ballets have been lucky on CD. They suit the brassiness, snap and energy of quintessential American character–and play to the open fifths in our hearts. Conductors who don’t grasp the snarky nature of American rhythms and rural tunes tend to stay away from the music. This is all to the good. The late great Pierre Boulez may have felt it necessary to try his hand at Beethoven’s Fifth. But thank heavens he never thought Copland worth the trouble! Can you imagine Boulez at the ranch piano in Rodeo? (Andrew Litton nails it!) As a result, performances by the composer, himself, by Ormandy, Slatkin, Tilson Thomas and now Andrew Litton are nearly always idiomatic. Of course, I wouldn’t be of my generation if I didn’t point out the way Leonard Bernstein’s Copland simply levitates off the page and dances down Broadway. It’s the best of all.
But there is something to be said for gorgeous up-to-date sound in a beautiful acoustic space–and Boettcher Hall is certainly that. Christopher Jaffe, the designing acoustician, was greatly focused on being sure there were enough cubic feet of open space for the listener. As a result, broadcasts from Boettcher can often mimic the open sound of those set in Symphony Hall, Boston. A win-win here. The Colorado Symphony is simply radiant. The brass and percussion land just the murderous blows along the way you hope for. But the Mexican Dance in Billy the Kid does so with a winning softness. And that is Litton being Litton–big and cushioned. In comparison with Bernstein’s chrome and steel recorded legacy, this is rich and verdant Copland. Perhaps his Mexico is a bit less spicy than Bernstein’s. But Litton has a terrific sense of rhythm, nonetheless and the necessary power is all here. I hope he will soon record Appalachian Spring with these same forces. I have no doubt this CD will become the new norm for Copland’s ballets.
GINASTERA Pampeana No. 3. Ollantay. ¹Estancia • Juanjo Mena, cond; Lucas Somoza Osterc¹ (bar); BBC Philharmonic Orchestra • CHANDOS CHAN 10884 (66:18)
This is a wonderful, evocative CD. It will be hard for me to convey the pleasure it can bring. There are any number of atmospheric symphonic works which begin down low and mysterious–Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, the Franck Symphony, Arthur Bliss’s Checkmate ballet, Tubin’s Third Symphony–now please add Pampeana No.3, also known as the Pastoral Symphony by Alberto Ginastera. Here is a slithery-romantic Hitchcockian mindscape if ever there was one, the sort that insinuates and addicts. Ginastera purports to tease an Argentinian sunrise and give us in the process the open intervals characteristic of Gaucho guitar, hence the four low notes with which it all begins. But I suspect we are really in the hands of some demented cousin of Bernard Herrmann’s worming his way into our soul. This is the side of the composer which needs reminding.
We are all familiar with the rhythmic malambo Ginastera, whirling obsessively in 6/8. There is plenty of that in the three movements here and throughout the remaining works. This hard edge of dance makes Ginastera at times the Aaron Copland of the Pampas. But the sensuous chromatic sweep of moodier moments is the surprise and delight here. Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic create ravishing sonorities and richly rolling climaxes with just the right veil over passion. The recorded sound is as good as it gets.
Liner notes here are both informative and amusing. One is reminded that Latin American intellectuals love categories. So we are informed that while Ollantay and Estancia belong to “objective nationalism”, Pampeana No. 3 now falls into “subjective nationalism”. All this simply means that Ginastera’s direct quotations from folk music gradually decline over time and are replaced by his own version of their essence. It’s what happens with most folk composers, from Dvořák to Vaughan Williams. The music here was composed between 1941 and 1954 and is in fact largely of a piece in the listener’s mind. Estancia is the earliest, a very effective ballet assisted in a few spots by Osterc’s impressive baritone to set the scene. Ollantay’s three movements refer to dawn, warriors and death–I note wryly this is not so different from our own country music obsessions–though in America the drama tends to be reduced. Nashville is less about stoicism, war and death and more about disrespect from one’s dog or carburetor.
Juanjo Mena, originally from Spain, is clearly a rising star. And one appreciates this CD as the first of a Ginastera series. The BBC Philharmonic has been fortunate in its choice of Music Directors. Noseda, Tortelier and Storgårds are all romantics in their own way, and the orchestra is gorgeously lush. Here’s to gauchos riding the Pampas of Manchester!