Our loss, as the work written during Ivess time at Yale and completed in 1898 absorbs lessons from the well-made American symphonies of the previous generation, and takes up the baton proffered by Dvořák in his New World Symphony only five years before. You sense this most clearly in the Adagio, with its heartfelt cor anglais and rich vein of pathos, and in the dance-like Scherzo, with its insouciant trio section. The outer movements are more ambitious in their deployment of themes and key structures, and if Ives does not escape prolixity in either instance, he finds an accommodation between candid melodic appeal and hard-won cumulative formal intensity. Each movement culminates in an extended coda: that for the opening Allegro verges on the portentous, but that for the Finale trumps the ace with a breezy march theme which challenges the musics European aesthetic orbit decisively. At the dawn of the American century, Ivess instincts and intentions seem undoubted.
Not just another Europeanised American symphony then, and Steven Sloane currently the enterprising Music Director at Opera North got to grips with it in no uncertain terms. This was a confident, well-prepared account lucidly drawing together thematic threads, while never apologising for occasional rough edges or patches of near-insuperable textural balance (if as noted a pedagogue as Horatio Parker Ivess teacher at Yale let them pass, so should we). Most importantly, Sloane conveyed a belief in the work as integral to the composers symphonic output, not the academic dry run as even some Ives aficionados have seen it. Over a century since its composition, and 40 years since its belated premiere (under Morton Gould), maybe this most characterful symphony has at last come in from the cold.
Context helped on this occasion with the symphony being prefaced by the teenage Ivess Variations on America (1891). This second national anthem in the US and a first elsewhere! is subjected to five variations ranging from the bathetic to the frivolous, with two polytonal interludes added for good measure. Yet, as in Ivess mature work, theres no sense of irreverence; rather a desire to see how much a good tune can be made to yield without forfeiting its identity. Hearing the original organ version (William Schumans 1963 orchestration is a modern lollipop of a rare kind, and should be in the repertoire of orchestras everywhere), with what sounds and looks! like cripplingly awkward pedal work, was a rare treat, and Carleton Etherington brought the piece to life persuasively.
To end with the first great American symphony was logical enough, even though Dvořáks New World is as ostensibly Czech as any of its predecessors and native only in the cut of its themes. Its hard for concert audiences today to hear the piece as a challenge to talent, but Sloanes interpretation was sincere and engaging without tricks. After an opening Allegro that grew organically and at a natural, flowing pace, the famous Largo was neither hurried nor over-indulged; its indelible main theme (lovingly rendered by Peter Walden a real showcase evening for him!) truly affecting. The Scherzo was a fraction stolid, though Sloane found an easy songfulness in the trio and gave the coda its head most effectively. He kept a firm hand on rhetoric in the Finale, guiding it vigorously to its climactic coda concluding a performance that, if not revelatory, was rarely less than satisfying.
Of course, there were to be no further symphonies from Dvořák. Perhaps he sensed that composers from a younger culture would best renew the genre. If so, had he heard Ivess First Symphony, in tonights performance, he would surely have felt his decision vindicated.
- Ivess Symphony No.2, conducted by Robert Spano, is played on 12 March [Box Office: 0121 780 3333]