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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Orchestral Works - volume 2
A Symphony: New England Holidays [39:04]
Central Park in the Dark [8:07]
Three Places in New England [19:43]
The Unanswered Question [5:02]
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. March/April 2015, Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University and Hammer Hall (Three Places), Melbourne

The more Charles Ives I hear, the more I adore him. He is the quintessential American composer, an autodidact and successful insurance broker. Every text about him mentions that last fact, but there’s a good reason for that, because the resultant financial independence explains his extraordinary freedom from institutions and convention and everything else that might be creativity-stifling about the classical music industry.

I should point out that I might never have got my ears around Ives, if not for several live performances. Hearing this music in proper, three-dimensional spaces, in the ultimate high — real — fidelity that only a live performance can provide, is tantamount to an acoustic explanation of his music and how the cacophonous mess that recordings often convey is really an intricate-yet-easy-to-understand texture of different layers, a quilt of musics that move in different directions or at different tempos or stem from different times or all that and more at once. Fiendishly difficult to coordinate, it is more difficult still to do it justice on record. Little wonder then, that his most popular pieces on record are largely those where the fewest instruments are used. Like his Concord Piano Sonata, for example; although Charles Ives manages even in a piano sonata to need an extra, optional flute and a viola.

Those afraid of the infamous Ivesian complexity: Hearing an Ives piece and not knowing the wealth of hymns, tunes, marching and military songs would be like hearing the Goldberg Variations but not knowing either song on which the 30th Variation, the Quodlibet, is based. Or watching Mozart in the Jungle but not recognizing half the classical musician cameos … which is to say: still perfectly enjoyable, just a little less complex, funny, or emotionally meaningful than it would maximally be. The point: We should never not listen to Ives because of that. Perhaps concerts could be programmed with that in mind or maybe there could be an Ives-companion website one day, that lists and links and plays all those old tunes and where and how and why Ives used them. In an interview about Ives, Kent Nagano, remembers first encountering Ives: “At the beginning I remember just laughing [and Nagano laughs, recalling that]. I guess I heard … I think it was, well, some particularly dissonant and – in terms of time – completely uncoordinated pieces. And I had never heard anything like that in my life and it made me laugh. [But] I stayed in contact with his music and … once I began to hear the music more often, it just stimulated more and more curiosity.” In other words: There is no worry about being perplexed at first, it’s a natural process. The idea is to stay the course and eventually Ives will yield a lot of enjoyment. Which brings me, after straying, back to the disc at hand.

This disc, nominally the second volume in the Melbourne Orchestra’s cycle of Charles Ives orchestral works, contains three of his major goodies (Central Park in the Dark, Three Places in New England and The Unanswered Question) and one of his less performed, perhaps under-appreciated works in the most phenomenal performance I have heard: A Symphony: New England Holidays. The combination makes this a perfect starting place for this series. Fitting with the above on approachability, conductor Sir Andrew Davis coyly writes in the superb liner-notes about his conducting and recording experiences that “sometimes, even in Ives, difficulties may not be as extreme as they first appear!”

There are many recordings of the Unanswered Question and many very good ones; this is right among them, with exquisite strings and woodwinds in the background, gorgeous Trumpet-questions, and up-front excited, shrill and suitably in-your-face flute-chatter that do the un-answering. What a wonderful way to close one of the best Ives-discs yet. The same goes for the other two more famous works, which are here presented in demonstration sound. Indeed, the SACD sound — alas only stereo for me… although Ives will have been a major reason for upgrading to surround sound, if I ever do — is not just superb but also immensely helpful and indeed integral to the enjoyment of this music. Ives simply needs to be heard in excellent sound on an excellent stereo system and played loud, to capture the whole dynamic bandwidth of his music. Listening to Ives on an old car stereo would strike me, at least, as pointless.

It’s the quasi-Symphony, with which the recording opens, that becomes the main attraction. Essentially Ives’ Fifth Symphony — chronologically it comes between the Third and Fourth — and also his “Four Seasons”, and according to Ives it doesn’t necessarily form a cohesive symphonic whole. The movements, corresponding with the seasons, are: Washington’s Birthday (Winter), Decoration Day [which is now Memorial Day] (Spring), The Fourth of July (Summer), and Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day (Fall). It’s an amazing and baffling and all-senses-bombarding experience, with details audible as never before, even if it meant unorthodox recording methods to get those Jew’s Harps heard in “Washington’s Birthday”. It’s an all-encompassing experience, this Ives disc, and frankly the best disc of orchestral Ives I’ve yet heard. I can’t wait for more from the same team.

Jens F Laurson
Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ Dominy Clements



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