Ealing Symphony Orchestra/John Gibbons – First Public Performance of Charles Ives’s Orchestral Set No.3 – Schmidt & Saint-Saëns with Christian Wilson

Fuga Solemnis
Orchestral Set No.3 [First public performance]
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.78

Christian Wilson (organ)

Ealing Symphony Orchestra
John Gibbons

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 November, 2011
Venue: St Barnabas Church, Ealing, London

This concert was ostensibly about the ‘unveiling’ of the new organ at St Barnabas – just relocated from St Jude’s, Southsea and put through its paces in two demanding pieces, along with the final stages of Duruflé’s Prélude, Adagio and Choral varié sur le theme ‘Veni Creator’ (1930) as a virtuosic addition after the interval.

Nor was the opening item any routine display piece. Although his notable output of organ music has become more familiar outside of Austro-German lofts, Franz Schmidt remains better known (albeit insufficiently) for his orchestral and chamber work – notably four symphonies that survey his stylistic evolution in all essentials and the oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln. Prior to this latter, Schmidt was commissioned to write a piece for the new organ at Austrian Radio’s Vienna headquarters and responded with his Fuga Solemnis (1937). At just under fifteen minutes, this draws on both fugal and freer polyphonic elements as it gradually accrues an inexorable momentum before being joined during its climactic stages by a sizable complement of brass and percussion in a peroration of contrapuntal splendour. Deployed as an extended interlude in the posthumously completed cantata Deutsche Auferstehung, the piece well deserves an existence free of ideological negation.

Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony (1886) is much more familiar and guaranteed, as here, to leave an impression. Having invested the first movement’s slow introduction with real eloquence, John Gibbons adopted a slightly staid tempo for the Allegro – its nonchalant second theme verging on the pedestrian – but he brought no mean drama to its climax then effected an ominous transition into the Adagio (which introduces the organ), its easeful melody was meltingly rendered with the interplay of organ and orchestra at its most atmospheric. In the symphony’s second part, also of two movements, Gibbons had the measure of the scherzo’s energy if not quite its trio’s effervescence, but the beatific transition to the finale was effortlessly done while Christian Wilson’s thunderous re-entry confirmed the Hill organ’s potency. The Ealing Symphony responded with due incisiveness, though Gibbons was right not to rush the alternation of fugal display and more reflective interludes on the way to an apotheosis as dynamic as it was resplendent.

Yet the highlight of the programme was the work in which the organ was absent. Long known of through work-lists and studies, Charles Ives’s Third Orchestral Set was begun around 1919 and abandoned (with any remaining pretentions to original composition) some eight years later. A realisation, many years in the making, slipped out to little fanfare on the Naxos label some three years ago, but this was the first occasion on which the completed work has been heard in public. Apparently Gibbons had to pursue intensive negotiations for this to go ahead, though the quality of the music and commitment of the performance were their own justification.

Those familiar with Ives’s earlier such Sets would hardly have been surprised at the follow-through of its three movements, though their content amply suggests the composer was moving into new and potentially fruitful territory. Thus the opening movement is dark-hued and evolves more through textural and motivic intensification than the combination of pre-existing themes; which latter the second movement embraces in its evoking ‘An Afternoon, or During Camp Meetin’ Week – One Secular Afternoon (in Bethel)’, a scabrous introduction making way for a riotous overlay of traditional and popular tunes in the classic Ivesian manner.

Gibbons might have integrated these more fully into the densely woven textures at climaxes, yet there was no gainsaying the conviction of the playing here or in those movements either side – especially the finale which, in its inward though never intangible remoteness and intuitive-seeming progress towards a closing catharsis, must rank with the most affecting music that Ives undertook. Certainly the hieratic power of the composer’s late songs was present here, allied to a calm strength of purpose that held (most of) the listeners in its thrall. What might have been achieved had not illness and probable disillusionment arrested Ives’s creative faculties?

Clearly one should be grateful for what remains – not least the present work, its initial two movements finely realised by the late David Gray Porter and the finale no less ably elaborated by Nors S. Josephson, who was in the audience and acknowledged applause. Hopefully Gibbons will have an opportunity to revive the piece before long: for now this account made a strong case for its inclusion within the official Ives ‘canon’, as well as being a real coup for an orchestra which punches well above its weight in terms of repertoire. There could have been no greater evidence of such ambition than this performance and the concert as a whole.

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