Andrew Davis conducts Charles Ives’s New England Holidays Symphony, Central Park in the Dark, Three Places in New England, and The Unanswered Question [Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; Chandos]

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A Symphony: New England Holidays
Two Contemplations – I: Central Park in the Dark
Orchestral Set No.1: Three Places in New England
Two Contemplations – II: The Unanswered Question

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Recorded during March & April 2015 in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, Melbourne, and in Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: February 2016
Duration: 72 minutes



Sir Andrew Davis’s survey for Chandos of the orchestral music by Charles Ives, in the company of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, continues with this second disc centred on the Symphony that is New England Holidays that was assembled during the period 1904 to 1913 and in itself offers a viable overview of the composer’s stylistic development at this time. More symphonic suite than symphony, it has more recently gained acceptance as an integral entity and Davis emphasises this formal cohesion so that the overtly picturesque aspects are outweighed by more abstract yet never impersonal concerns.

Thus ‘Washington’s Birthday’ moves stealthily from initial stasis to take in more disruptive elements as give context to the ensuing barn-dance, rendered here with an appealing lilt such as makes the bittersweet postlude the more affecting. ‘Decoration Day’ unfolds with a palpable sense of expressive give and take, its sometimes impulsive elements drawn into a rhapsodic evolution and channelled into a ‘last post’ crescendo towards the marching band climax then the wistful coda. The shortest and most radical piece, ‘The Fourth of July’, is rightly taken as a seamless accumulation of allusions building inexorably to its blazing culmination which is itself capped by the explosive evocation of rockets lighting the skies before hitting earth with a whimper. Very different in overall intent, ‘Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day’ (with the not-credited MSO Chorus, save for a concert photo) makes for a fitting conclusion – the harmonic density of its opening section underpinned by a rhythmic impetus whose subsiding into the dreamy central pastoral is deftly achieved, as is a gradual regaining of tension towards the fervent apotheosis with its beatific evanescing into silence.

Following this with Three Places in New England (1914) reinforces the consistency of Ives’s mature thinking. Davis brings Mahlerian pathos to ‘The St Gaudens in Boston Common’ with its stately progress towards a climax which never arrives, then is mindful not to indulge in overkill as ‘Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut’ takes its eventful course to a still focal-point before regaining its initial verve for the uproarious conclusion. Neither is the simmering fervency of ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’ at all undersold, its hymnal underlay provoking a resplendent climax left hanging in mid-air.

Davis frames the New England triptych with the Two Contemplations that are similarly among Ives’s most enduring creations. Central Park in the Dark (1906) is admirably done in that its contrasting strata of ethereal strings and strident winds intertwine imperceptibly heading into the raucous climax and unresolved close. The Unanswered Question (1908) might have been just a little steadier so that its spatial exchanges between trumpet and woodwinds registered even more graphically, though there is no denying the poise of the strings circling impassively behind them.

For the Holidays Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas’s fastidious reading on Avie is a strong contender (even if his earlier account on Sony delved even deeper), as is David Zinman’s robust account coupled with a Three Places, which lacks subtlety, while James Sinclair’s take for Naxos on the other pieces is part of a worthwhile miscellany.

Superbly recorded – not least in its realising of the composer’s occasionally fanciful intentions, with detailed booklet notes from Mervyn Cooke and the conductor, the present disc consolidates what is becoming an important and absorbing series.

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