Prom 57: Ives and Mahler Parallels

A Symphony: New England Holidays
Symphony No.1 in D

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Ingo Metzmacher

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

What a smart piece of programming! Ives and Mahler took what the world has to offer and put it in their music. Both these pieces gestated for some time having been begun when their composers were in their early ’twenties. As Mahler knocked his symphony into final shape, Ives started to compile his musical depiction of four American national holidays. These composers share innovation, remembrance, exploration and an image-related soundworld.

Ingo Metzmacher’s unfolding of Ives’s four-movement symphony, each section performable separately, was a revelation – a labour of love for the conductor and a painstaking re-creation of supposedly difficult, not to say bizarre, music. It couldn’t have sounded more lucid here, Ives’s individuality apparent in every bar, his nostalgic, perhaps defiant embracing of American life in all its diversity made personal and universal. Metzmacher underlined Ives’s kinship with Mahler and revealed that, musically, Ives’s insularity uncannily presages Berg, Birtwistle and Carter; the opening of Decoration Day has a Wozzeckian taint, the following cor anglais motif hints at Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time, while the final “explosion” of The Fourth of July reminds of the coruscating denouement of Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra (as Bernstein conducted it!). Such premonitions are at odds perhaps with the childhood memories that Ives distils into the music, save the final movement, Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day, which is more timeless in its sense of awe and continuance.

Ives is a problem composer for some – no doubt his inclusion of ’popular’ elements, the seemingly haphazard styles, scoring and harmonies, and the metric collisions, all play their part to nonplus ’traditional’ mindsets. Metzmacher’s conducting was a revelation at just how exacting Ives is (helped by a critical edition) and, for all the musical diversity along the way, how integrated his thinking is – the impossible complexities of The Fourth of July are intentional, yet there is much that is beautiful, both starkly and sensuously (Decoration Day almost Debussyian), with quadrilles and folk tunes rubbing shoulders with visionary musical thinking. This seasonal symphony, beginning in winter, proved a compelling and haunting experience, Metzmacher scrupulous with Ives’s use of perspective – the faraway cornet intoning ’Taps’ in Decoration Day, the small string group at the back of the orchestra in Fourth of July, and the backstage brass group that closes, with the chorus’s hymnal, Thanksgiving so movingly.

The one blot was the crass decision to put a spotlight on the Jews’ Harp player (Washington’s Birthday) – how cheap can you get?

Mahler too used distance; in the opening bars of the ’Titan’ symphony (Mahler dropped this epithet) it’s a backwoods trumpet. Metzmacher aligns himself to the German tradition of Klemperer and Erich Kleiber, and to his senior contemporary Michael Gielen (what a shame Gielen didn’t continue to work with the BBCSO after his ’Guest’ period elapsed). Anyone familiar with the young Klemperer’s work will know that he could put his foot down and Metzmacher’s brisk and bracing account of Mahler One is perhaps something Klemperer could have delivered at a Kroll concert in the ’twenties – flexible and exacting. Not without poetry, lilt or exquisiteness, Metzmacher’s account was something of a romp but without ever being gratuitous. Such vernal freshness was welcome in a symphony that gets played too often. If not everything came off, and the horns were too prominent, there was much to beguile and thrill, an assertion of Metzmacher’s ability to get an orchestra on his side and deliver something intrinsically musical.

One of the best Proms of the season and perhaps the Ives will prove to be the single most important performance (along with David Robertson’s Sibelius Five).

As a postscript, although I rather the BBCSO was not looking for a new Chief Conductor, given Metzmacher’s and Robertson’s breadth of repertoire and imaginative programming, one hopes that both are in the frame.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Friday, 6 September, at 2 o’clock

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