Charles Ives’s Four Symphonies – Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin at Carnegie Hall: Ives Immersion

Symphony No.1 in D minor
Symphony No.2
Symphony No.3 (The Camp Meeting)
Symphony No.4

UMS Choral Union [Ives 4]

Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin
Teddy Abrams [second conductor, Ives 4]

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 10 May, 2013
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Charles Ives (1874-1954) in 1913 dressed for his day-job as aa director for an insurance agencyHas it ever been attempted before? Will it ever happen again? All four of Charles Ives’s numbered symphonies played in a single concert. (The ‘Holidays’ Symphony is sometimes played complete, but more usually its four descriptive movements are given singly, such as ‘The Fourth of July’ and ‘Decoration Day’.)

Having reviewed all Ives’s numbered symphonies, save No.2, when relayed from Detroit, I direct you to my comments from then (links below), and on the music itself, which hold good for the Carnegie Hall outings. Thus this article is by way of recording that this stand-out event took place. Unfortunately, the designated New York-based Classical Source reviewer was unable to attend the concert for family reasons, and so I listened to the live relay courtesy of radio station WQXR and then its listen-again facility.

The three-hour evening included speeches, and Leonard Slatkin introducing the Fourth Symphony. Given with just one interval, the first two symphonies came before it. Some of the ideas are loopy but delicious, Ives clearly conversant with the European symphonic literature of his day, parodying it, even taking the rise, and yet moulding it for his own use with wit, affection, and imagination.

Charles Ives (1874-1954) wrote his first two symphonies between 1898 and 1902, although the Second may date from a few years later. Both are endearing works, full of good tunes and sometimes discombobulating in not doing what one might expect … but that’s part of the fun. How could anyone resist the gorgeous clarinet tune that opens the First Symphony, or its imposing finale? The Detroiters played with bubbly affection, springy rhythms, beauty of tone and exhilaration.

The Second Symphony is a wonderful piece, in five or three movements (it could be argued that the fast outer ones are preceded by slow introductions). Not played until 1951, when Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (who together recorded it twice) brought it to life, and the aging Ives heard the concert broadcast on a neighbour’s radio. The work is wide-ranging in mood, from deep eloquence to skittish games via queasy figurations and harmonies that no textbook allows for, the original and/or caricatured ideas fleshed out with reference to popular ditties (‘Turkey in the Straw’, for example), and the suggestion of marching bands, instantly recognisable and very much belonging to Ives’s personal command of expression and form. This was a really fine performance, the music always leading to the dissonant final chord, here played short, like a poking out of the tongue. Bernstein went for long, a jarring discord (perfectly convincing, too); maybe Slatkin’s decision was taken from the Critical Editions of Ives’s music, as supervised by James Sinclair.

After the interval, the remaining symphonies made for startling contrast, ‘The Camp Meeting’ (1908-10) gently affectionate of congregational gatherings, and the huge, visionary Fourth Symphony (1910-16), dissonant, multi-layered, and with a beautiful slow movement; it shouldn’t add up, but it does.

All these Carnegie Hall accounts added a little something extra to the already-excellent in-Detroit accounts, the DSO fired-up, the listener sensing pride in the performances, unflagging and committed, Leonard Slatkin fully in charge of music that is very much a part of his extensive repertoire. There are Ives pieces that are challenging – the Fourth Symphony played here, and the ‘Concord’ Sonata (Piano Sonata No.2), for example – but the first three symphonies, highly individual as they are, have little or nothing to frighten those horses, and I suspect that anyone not previously knowing these works, but who may have read up on the composer, and opinions for and against, will have been pleasantly surprised by the first three symphonies.

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