Ives 4

Chichester Psalms
Symphony No.4
Petrushka [1947 version]

David Stark (treble)

City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 24 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

With no apparent connection between the three works, save that each includes quotation or borrows from vernacular sources, this was, nevertheless, a satisfying concert, strongly performed by the CBSO under its Music Director.

Leonard Bernstein (who, by way of tenuous linkage, conducted the belated first performance of Charles Ives’s Second Symphony and was a consistent champion of Ives’s music) composed Chichester Psalms in response to a commission from Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals Festival (not the Chichester Festival as stated in the Proms programme note). The cathedral forces (from Chichester, Winchester and Salisbury) included boys’ voices, though the first performance (in New York, a fortnight before the Chichester première) was given by an adult mixed-voice choir under the composer’s direction. There was a plan for Bernstein to record the Psalms in Chichester with the cathedral choirs. Sadly, this was not to be.

Like Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Bernstein’s work is in three movements. Each contains a verse, or verses, from one psalm, plus a complete setting of another. Remarkably for a commission from an Anglican foundation, Bernstein elected to set the texts in the original Hebrew. Still more extraordinary is that much of the musical material was adapted from an abandoned theatre-project and, in the setting of Psalm 2 which interrupts the course of Psalm 23 in the second movement, Bernstein made use of a rejected number from “West Side Story”.

The CBSO and Chorus gave a spirited rendition of the first movement, not as forceful as some readings, and certainly not as fast. The 7/4 Allegro molto setting of Psalm 100 was quite steady, which allowed for instrumental detail to register, particularly in the often-submerged strings. The scoring is unusual – three each of trumpets and trombones, two harps, plenty of percussion, and strings. The CBSO percussion was admirable, but the brass was not as well projected. The boisterous, even brash, quality of this celebratory setting came across splendidly, though Oramo miscalculated in slowing for the brief passage for solo voices.

David Stark was the soloist in the setting of Psalm 23, where Bernstein depicts the psalmist David with harp accompaniment. It was deemed necessary to amplify David Stark, who was positioned by the organ console, and so his pleasant voice was out of proportion to what was going on around it. A great shame!Otherwise, Oramo ensured the canonic writing for sopranos and altos moved along flowingly, but a touch more aggression would not have gone amiss from the men’s interjections – “Why do the nations rage?”

There is a version of Chichester Psalms with reduced scoring, which includes an organ, but the instrument does not feature in this original, orchestral version – contrary to the impression given by the programme note, which declared that the third movement “begins with a passionate and elegiac introduction for the organ.” It is actually the strings that launch the final movement, and the weight of tone, along with careful articulation, ensured that this emotionally intense music carried its full import. The unusual 10/4 metre of the setting of Psalm 131 needed to flow a little more, though the heartfelt quality of Bernstein’s bittersweet writing made a touching impression.

It was just as well that no organ was required for Chichester Psalms, for the newly restored Albert Hall instrument had broken down, which was announced by Oramo before beginning Ives’s Symphony No.4. This was a great pity. Although it makes only a small contribution, it is particularly important in the third movement. The weedy-sounding synthesizer was no replacement.

That aside, and allowing that in an ideal world the Theremin and quarter-tone piano (both optional) would have been included, this was a very convincing rendering of this astonishing work, one not to be undertaken lightly. The Maestoso ‘Prelude’ was full of portent – the delicate traceries of the ‘distant’ strings and harp creating a most magical contrast (Simon Halsey the assistant conductor) – and the various strands of instrumental detail were unusually clear. Ives peppers his scores with often-contradictory instructions. For instance, he writes choral parts and then indicates “preferably without voices”. The CBSO Chorus, notwithstanding the composer’s request, delivered “Watchman, tell us of the night” with firmness and conviction – in spite of the considerable dissonance which accompanies the setting. The solo piano part was stunningly well played by Clive Williamson.

The incredible second movement, which is nothing short of a melting-pot of simultaneously sounded contrasted musical ideas, was exhilarating. In fact, in this performance, it had considerable humour, rather than being a dour-faced cacophonous affair. This music is way ahead of its time, with themes half-heard and then disappearing only to be replaced by something completely different. At the outset, the quarter-tone string music was incredibly eerie, though somehow also disconcertingly sensuous, and one was actually touched by gentle passages of almost Debussy-like refinement and reflection. The solo flute was subtle and alluring, the brass ripped into their lines with swagger, and the whole performance was a tour-de-force of orchestral virtuosity as well as being a compelling realisation of the composer’s kaleidoscopic conception.

By contrast, the third movement is a formal, slightly severe-sounding fugue. I found Oramo least convincing here, his basic pulse being rather too fast for the given Andante moderato.

Independent percussion rhythms and distant effects again feature in the cosmic last movement which, in the composer’s words, “is an apotheosis of the preceding content, in terms that have something to do with the reality of existence and religious experience.” The percussion, initially, was somewhat too loud and ‘present’; the indication in the score suggests that it should be ‘felt’ rather than distinctly heard. However, the movement built with unusual conviction, reaching an almost ecstatic climax at the entry of the wordless chorus.

This performance of Ives 4 really made one appreciate its musical – as opposed to its ‘shock’ – value.

After Ives’s thorny textures, Stravinsky’s Petrushka came like a bracing dose of fresh air – familiarity has not dimmed its vitality.I have affection for the opulent 1911 version, but the tauter, leaner sound of the 1947 revision suited Oramo’s conception ideally. Stravinsky’s vivid characterisation received all the attention it needed to bring the drama to life. This was not a blemish-free rendition – one or two moments of infelicity from the brass in particular – yet these were inconsequential in face of the conviction of the whole. Oramo caught the bustle and whirl of the outer movements and, as in the Ives, instrumental filigree registered most tellingly. Leon McCawley was drafted in for the piano part, which he relished, although there were one or two moments in ‘Part 2’ (In Petrushka’s Cell) where he indulged in some inappropriate (and unmarked) rubato. Elsewhere, such as the ‘Russian Dance’, for which Oramo struck just the right tempo, McCawley was thoroughly authoritative and assured. There were some outstanding solo instrumental contributions – those from horn, flute and cor anglais being especially memorable.

The programme note anticipated us hearing the ‘concert ending’; in fact, the score was given complete. How imaginative was Stravinsky’s response to the scenario, and how well the CBSO and Sakari Oramo realised it. The disquiet felt at the conclusion of Petrushka was dispelled by an ebullient encore – the Galop, the last movement of Stravinsky’s Suite No.2.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 28 July at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

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