CBSO/Sloane – 25 Feb

Variations on ’America’
Symphony No.1 in D minor
Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)

Carleton Etherington (organ)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Steven Sloane

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 25 February, 2003
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

The CBSO’s cycle of Ives symphonies continued with the rarely-heard First Symphony. It’s not hard to explain its neglect in the concert hall: not through any overt deficiencies of form or content, but because its stylistic identity is only tacitly that associated with the later composer, while its technical demands place it beyond the capabilities of most youth or amateur orchestras.

Our loss, as the work – written during Ives’s 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 music’s European aesthetic orbit decisively. At the dawn of the ’American century’, Ives’s 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 – Ives’s teacher at Yale – let them pass, so should we). Most importantly, Sloane conveyed a belief in the work as integral to the composer’s 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 Ives’s 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 Ives’s mature work, there’s 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 Schuman’s 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 Dvořák’s ’New World’ is as ostensibly Czech as any of its predecessors and ’native’ only in the cut of its themes. It’s hard for concert audiences today to hear the piece as a ’challenge to talent’, but Sloane’s 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 Ives’s First Symphony, in tonight’s performance, he would surely have felt his decision vindicated.

  • Ives’s Symphony No.2, conducted by Robert Spano, is played on 12 March [Box Office: 0121 780 3333]
  • CBSO

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