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CLASSICAL  February 2009

CLASSICAL February 2009

Subject:

Ives - Sets 1-3

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 6 Feb 2009 15:28:53 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

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Charles Ives

*  Orchestral Set No. 1 - Three Places in New England (Ver 1; ed. Sinclair)
*  Orchestral Set No. 2
*  Orchestral Set No. 3 (ed. Porter; 3rd mvmt. realized by Josephson)

Malmo Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus/James Sinclair
Naxos 8.559353  Total time: 62:36

Summary for the Busy Executive: Hurrah, boys, hurrah!

Naxos has announced a project to record all of Ives's orchestral music
with the help of conductor and Ives scholar James Sinclair.  As the
French say, bon chance.  Because he didn't depend on music to make a
living and because for the first thirty or so years of his composing
life his music remained unperformed, Ives rarely finished a work.  He
became a dedicated reviser.  Not only do entire pieces have several
versions, but passages within works do as well.  According to some
musicians who worked with him (Kirkpatrick and Cowell spring to mind),
Ives seemed to give the performer license to choose from a number of
options and consequently spawned a scholarly cottage industry for decades
down the road.

Ives's characteristic form is the "set." A set collects pieces that
usually have been written independently.  Ives groups them in a way that
creates a spiritual program.  Different types of sets use different types
of forces.  The program here collects the three sets for orchestra.

Naxos's series has already produced interesting results with the
publication of this disc.  The first set, best known as Three Places
in New England, is recorded for the first time in its original version.
Its later revision constitutes a genuine Ives "hit" (even Eugene Ormandy,
a conductor who doesn't immediately spring to mind as a champion of
radical music, recorded it), and indeed it was one of the earliest Ives
works to receive a professional performance.  I've loved it for over
forty years.  Like its two siblings, the movements succeed one another
in a slow-fast-slow pattern.  The first movement -- "Impression of the
'St.  Gaudens' in Boston Common" -- commemorates Col.  Robert Gould Shaw
and his all-Black 54th Massachusetts regiment, who fought and died in
the battle of Fort Wagner in South Carolina.  Shaw and his soldiers were
so despised that the Confederate army dumped the entire regimental dead,
including Shaw himself, into an unmarked mass grave.  Ives depicts a
gray, misty day on Boston Common.  As the monument (by August St. Gaudens
and Stanford White) emerges from the gloom, the observer begins to think
of the Civil War and "the last full measure of devotion," as two of
Ives's favorite tunes, "Battle Cry of Freedom" and "Old Black Joe," loom
from the orchestral haze.  The second movement -- "Children's Holiday
at Putnam's Camp" -- captures a Fourth of July celebration through a
bubbling pot of mainly borrowed tunes, apparently played by an amateur
band that keeps losing its place: Ives's own Country Band March, "Yankee
Doodle," "Battle Cry of Freedom," "Taps," "The British Grenadier,"
"Marching Through Georgia," "The Girl I Left Behind Me," "Hail Columbia,"
and "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean." A reflective middle section
interrupts the hoopla, but the merrymaking breaks out again.  The finale,
"The Housatonic at Stockbridge," is one of Ives's "transcendental" nature
pieces, inspired by a poem by Robert Underwood Johnson which depicts a
quiet New England river winding out to sea, a metaphor since at least
Tennyson for spiritual journey.  Ives based the music on his song of
the poem, a paraphrase on Woodbury's hymn-tune Dormance.

Sinclair's using the first version of the set shocks me a bit -- I've
heard the later version for so many years that it took me a little time
to get used to the original.  Not that it's more difficult music.  If
anything, it sounds much more coherent at first.  For one thing, the
main rhythmic pulse is far more prominent.  Two different sets of barlines
aren't fighting it out, as they do in the revision.  I happen to prefer
the revision.  That kind of "realistic," slightly-off simultaneity belongs
to my deepest ideas of Ives, but your mileage may vary.  For what it's
worth, my favorite recordings of the first two orchestral sets come from
Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra on London/Decca 466745,
a double-decker which includes all four symphonies as well (conducted
by Mehta, Marriner, and Dohnanyi).

The second orchestral set is performed in its usual version, so
comparisons to other recordings become more valid.  It opens with a
beautiful hymn-like passage.  As far as I know, the theme originates
with Ives, although "Nearer, My God, to Thee" keeps peeking out here and
there.  Ives at one point called it an "Elegy to Stephen Foster" before
settling on the title "An Elegy to our Forefathers." The movement lifts
something that could degenerate to sentimentality into genuine nobility,
an expression of Ives's view of the sentimental.  Rather than despise
it, as most of us tend to do, he views it as one aspect of the sublime,
seen "through a glass, darkly." The movement becomes a potpourri or
evocation of Victorian hymns.  The second movement brings to mind ragtime
and revivalist rousers like "Bringing in the Sheaves" and ends in a haze
of reminiscence.  The last movement opens with a bit of reportage --
something that occurs in Ives's music fairly frequently.  Ives was waiting
for a train when news of the Lusitania broke.  The people on the railway
platform spontaneously broke into the hymn "In the Sweet By and By."
Ives begins with the musical fact -- a small chorus quietly sings the
hymn -- and then moves to a meditation, as if the soul collectively
groped toward wisdom and truth.  Finally, the music climaxes triumphantly
on "In the Sweet By and By." Sinclair's is one of the more coherent and
clear accounts of the set, but to me he comes up a bit short on the
poetry.  I prefer Dohnanyi and the Cleveland.

The Orchestral Set #3 is a bit of an illusion, as far as I'm concerned.
Ives essentially shut down as a composer rather dramatically in 1927,
when he announced to his wife, "I can't do it any more.  Nothing sounds
right to me." The Third Set was one of those pieces he was working on.
The first movement is fairly complete.  The two later movements get
progressively sketchier, although Ives was to continue to pick at them
until he died.  The third movement especially consists of scraps.  As
far as I'm concerned, the piece sounds less interesting as it continues,
with an outstanding first movement (the one Ives nearly completed), a
fine second, and a pale third.  The first movement is another of those
Ivesian spiritual pilgrimages.  On the other hand, the third movement
sounds like someone trying to imitate Ives.  It reminds me of reading a
textbook on the composer.  All the boxes under "Ives's Style" have been
checked off, but the music lacks surprise.  To those who've said, "My
kid banging on the piano could do as well" -- no, he can't.

Sinclair and the Swedes do very well.  As I said, Sinclair has found
the narrative thread of these works -- always difficult to do in Ives.
The textures are very clear, so you can hear all the simultaneous planes
of different musical activity.  He achieves a fair amount of poetry,
although Dohnanyi, as I've said, gets more, and the level of Cleveland's
playing soars above the Swedes, as good as they may be.  Incidentally,
not every reviewer agrees with me on this one.  Nevertheless, this is
one real bargain and one of the best in Naxos's American series.

Steve Schwartz

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