Charles Ives’s Symphonies

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.1
Symphony No.4
Central Park in the Dark

Symphony No.2
Symphony No.3 (The Camp Meeting)
General William Booth enters into Heaven

Donnie Ray Albert (baritone)

Dallas Symphony Chorus

Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Litton

Recorded in Eugene McDermott Concert Hall, Morton H Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas – 12-15 January 2006 (Symphony No.1/Central Park), 19-22 January 2006 (Symphony No.4/General William Booth), 6-9 January 2005 (Symphony No.2), 23-26 September 2004 (Symphony No.3)

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: January 2007
CD No: HYPERION CDA/SACDA67540 (Symphonies 1 & 4)
Duration: 78 minutes (Symphonies 1 & 4)
69 minutes

Integral cycles of Charles Ives’s symphonies aren’t exactly plentiful. In fact, I can only think of two – Harold Faberman’s pioneering readings on Vanguard do not appear to be currently available and Michael Tilson Thomas’s set which is still around in a budget box from Sony Classical. Strictly speaking, a complete survey would include Ives’s ‘Holidays’ Symphony (actually, a ‘collection’ of four independent works: Washington’s Birthday, Decoration Day, The Fourth of July, Thanksgiving (Forefathers’ Day). Tilson Thomas includes ‘Holidays’. There is also a composite set from Decca: Zubin Mehta in the first two symphonies (the finale of No.1 given with cuts), Neville Marriner conducting No.3 and Christoph von Dohnányi leading the Fourth. It would not be appropriate, in my view, to incorporate the ‘Universe’ Symphony, which was left by the composer in a very fragmentary state and has been subjected to at least two speculative ‘realisations’ – and recordings.

There are various ‘one off’ recordings of Ives’s symphonies, but Andrew Litton and Hyperion are to be commended for presenting these works splendidly played and excellently recorded in state-of-the-art sound. Whilst I cannot report on the ‘enhanced’ elements of these SACDs, I can imagine they would sound stunning in that format. The discs are also available as standard CDs – the catalogue number prefix is CDA.

In effect a ‘student’ work, the First Symphony (circa 1898-1901 – exact dating of Ives’s music is virtually impossible, not least because the composer often gave contradictory information in this regard) is audibly the work of one who had absorbed contemporary and near-contemporary models – Dvořák and Brahms not the least amongst them. For all its ‘traditional’ casting, however, there are typically quirky moments where the music does not quite go where one would traditionally expect. Indeed, Professor Horatio Parker – Ives’s composition teacher – was apparently horrified by some of the composer’s harmonic excursions.

In the first movement, Litton, sensibly, does not linger unnecessarily, thus keeping sentimentality at bay. This is a consistent overall feature of these readings and the music is heard to good advantage as a consequence. Even though the sonorities of others can be detected – fleeting aural glimpses of Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Wagner may be discerned – there is a surefootedness about Ives’s grasp of structure which is impressive, and the recapitulation of themes in the finale is handled in a masterly fashion. This is no mere student feeling his way, but the work of one who is secure in his craft and in the handling of his material; not forgetting the confident and colourful orchestration.

On the disc, this is followed immediately by the Fourth Symphony (started around 1910 and still being worked on in the 1920s – posthumously given its first complete performance in 1965 under Stokowski). Nothing could be more contrasted to its youthful predecessor, for this is Ives in transcendental, visionary mode, speaking his own thoroughly characteristic voice.

The somewhat brooding introduction (with ethereal, offstage string music operating at its own tempo – ideally balanced here) introduces a chorus with the words and music of the hymn: “Watchman, tell us of the night” which doggedly pursues its tonal course in spite of the wash of dissonance which surrounds it – not least from the piano, whose virtuoso player(s) should have been credited. The second movement, subtitled ‘Comedy’, is, indeed, a riotous affair and, in this performance, exuberance and humour go hand in hand. Some performances of this utterly unique – and unprecedented – music sound merely, if understandably, effortful in the kaleidoscopic coming together – or conflicting – of disparate material such as folk-tunes, sacred pieces, quotations from symphonic literature and elsewhere. Litton and his Dallas players sound as if they are relishing the challenges the composer poses. A restrained ‘Fugue’ comprises the third movement, whilst the fourth movement poses similar challenges to that of the second in its conflation of divergent ideas. Danail Rachev is the assistant conductor in this symphony – Stokowski used two assistants, one of whom, José Serebrier, went on to record the work by himself. Neither his nor Stokowski’s versions are in the current catalogue. Litton is his own man and his reading is a very strong and convincing one.

Central Park in the Dark follows, and fine as the performance is, one does not really want to hear anything after the Fourth Symphony’s ecstatic – yet enigmatic – conclusion. It would have been better programming to place ‘Central Park’ between the two symphonies.

The second disc also has a ‘filler’, the magnificent “General William Booth enters into Heaven” in its version for solo baritone, chorus and orchestra. The booklet note is vague about the arrangement, referring to it being made “by a colleague under Ives’s direction”. I assume it to be that by John Becker who did indeed collaborate with the composer, but the task was unfinished and James Tenney prepared the score from Becker’s drafts and Ives’s notes. Donnie Ray Albert is the ardent leader of the vocal proceedings, if without quite the dark bass voice that Ives had in mind. The chorus sounds rather backward in the balance, but the fervour of the music comes across well enough; with its vocal shouts and frequent refrain “Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?”, this is a stirring mini-cantata.

The more restrained Symphony No.3 precedes it; each of its three movements has an evocative title: ‘Old Folks’ Gatherin’, ‘Children’s Day’ and ‘Communion’. Largely finished in 1904, it had to wait until 1946 for its first airing. By this time Ives had long stopped composing, though he occasionally ‘tinkered’ with his manuscripts which are notorious for their indecipherability. The symphony won him a Pulitzer Prize and whilst Ives told the press: “Prizes are badges of mediocrity”, he hung the citation on his wall with pride. There is a ‘homespun’, affectionate quality about the music – perhaps looking back nostalgically to the New England of the composer’s youth and the religious gatherings it depicts. In overall tone, it is not a million miles away from Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Ives’s scoring is at its most modest, with single woodwind, two horns and a trombone supplementing the strings. There are optional parts for timpani and bells, which are heard here to magical effect at the symphony’s conclusion.

Ives’s Second Symphony has been recorded the most frequently. Whilst largely finished in 1902, it was only in 1951 that it received its first performance – by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. There is a recording of that historic occasion contained in the New York Philharmonic’s 10-disc “Bernstein Live” set. Then Bernstein recorded the work commercially twice with that orchestra – his first (1960) is paired, on Sony, with the Third Symphony alongside an informative talk about Ives. His second version, for Deutsche Grammophon, dates from 1987 and is coupled with invaluable readings of some of Ives’s shorter orchestral pieces. Nevertheless, Andrew Litton, as has been indicated, is a committed advocate of this music, and whilst I would not wish to be without some of the other recordings cited, these Hyperion discs merit a very strong recommendation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content