Sir Andrew Davis’s survey of Charles Ives’s orchestral output concludes with this release of three masterworks which survey the composer’s creative extent in all its idiosyncratic, frequently bewildering yet always inimitable originality.
Not that the Third Symphony (The Camp Meeting, 1904) is at all provocative, this transformation of three organ pieces evoking the revival services of Ives’s youth in affectionate terms audibly tinged with regret. Eschewing the late-Romantic rhetoric of his previous Symphonies, its economy and restraint found an unlikely advocate in Gustav Mahler whose death prevented a high-profile premiere in New York – the work remaining unheard for another thirty-five years. Awarded a Pulitzer Prize, although it may have left Ives nonplussed, was belated recognition of its significance for American music to which Davis does ample justice.
Listening nowadays to the Second Orchestral Set (1919) is to be reminded of Ives’s stylistic consistency across the decade-and-a-half of his creative maturity. Once again there are three movements – but here an intensely inward ‘Elegy’ (whether ‘to Our Forefathers’ or to Stephen Foster hardly matters) – a zither’s glinting timbre heard almost uniquely within an orchestral context – is followed by the sardonic transformation of its composer’s early ragtime music in terms redolent of a cubist painting from the period. The culmination in every sense is Ives’s evocation of the communal response at a New York station to the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, resulting in a chaconne-like accumulating of emotion toward a climax of fervent affirmation. Davis handles this superbly, though its subsequent tailing-off could have had more gravitas.
So to the Fourth Symphony (1916) which, along with the ‘Concord’ Piano Sonata, is Ives’s crowning and most inclusive statement. Davis brings mystery without undue portentousness to the ‘Prelude’, then paces the ensuing ‘Comedy’ such that its complex textures and layered quotations are integrated into an evolving sonata-rondo with exhilarating impact. The ‘Fugue’ which follows might have evinced even greater anguish in its nostalgia, while Davis is hardly alone in taking the ‘Finale’ at overly rapid a tempo – the climax having less than ultimate majesty and its searching aftermath atmospheric rather than inwardly intense. Never in doubt is the success of Thomas M. Brodhead’s “Performance Score” in clarifying Ives’s intentions as rarely before, or of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s discreetly virtuosic rendering of the piano part.
It helps, moreover, that the SACD sound accorded these performances sets new standards in the recording of Ives’s orchestral music. As before, there are detailed annotations by Mervyn Cooke and thoughtful observations from the conductor. Those who possess Michael Tilson Thomas’s accounts of the Third and Fourth Symphonies (the latter’s final movement unsurpassed in its cumulative import) on Sony may rest content, but those who have been acquiring the Chandos series need not hesitate. A pity that it finishes here: Davis is explicit in his dislike of the Robert Browning Overture and unresponsive to those latter-day realisations of the Emerson Concerto, Universe Symphony or (most regrettably) the Third Orchestral Set. Taken overall, though, these three discs reaffirm Ives as among the twentieth-century greats.