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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Orchestral Works - Volume 3
Orchestral Set No. 2 (1915-1919, ed. James B. Sinclair) [17:39]
Symphony No. 3 ‘The Camp Meeting’ (1908-1910, ed. Kenneth Singleton) [21:09]
Symphony No. 4 (1910/25) [31:51] Performing score realised and edited by Thomas M. Brodhead
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Sir Andrew Davis
Brett Kelly, Anthony Pasquill (assistant conductors)
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
rec. 2014, Hamer Hall, The Arts Centre, Melbourne & Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
Reviewed as a Studio Master download from Chandos.net
Pdf booklet included
CHANDOS CHSA5174 SACD [71:04]

I’ve reviewed the two previous volumes in this series, and I think it would be fair to say it’s been a bumpy ride. I declared the first instalment ‘uncompetitive’, but I was far more complimentary about the second. Then again, I was comparing these Melbourne performances with Davis’s live BBC ones, recorded at the Barbican in January 1996. Mischievous I know, but the upside is that those London concerts confirmed Sir Andrew’s Ivesian credentials. That said, his Chandos cycle uses the critical editions of the scores, although there was a regrettable mix-up with Symphony No. 1.

In my previous reviews I commented at length on rival recordings, so there’s no need to do the same here. In the case of the Orchestral Set No. 2, I’ve chosen Davis Mark 1 and James B. Sinclair’s Naxos recording with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Choir as my comparative versions. In his review of the latter disc – which includes all three sets – Stuart Hall declared it a ‘great moment in the history of recorded music’, a verdict I’m happy to endorse. Sinclair, a most distinguished Ivesian, also edited the critical edition of the score used here.

Ives, something of magpie, collected musical and visual memories that he would then weave into discrete works. The second orchestral set, like the first – Three Places in New England – is one of them. Sinclair’s Elegy to Our Forefathers is dark and rather lush, which masks some of the instrumental shimmer that comes through very well in Davis’s lighter, more transparent Chandos recording. Bavouzet us a big-name pianist, and he really does turn the second movement into a mini-concerto. Sinclair’s soloist, treated more as a thread in the orchestral fabric, is very capable though, and I do like the way the music fades at the end, like an old photograph.

Whether in London or Melbourne Davis is more vigorous in this music, and that underlines the startling originality of Ives’s writing; the clashes of rhythm are especially well managed. Sinclair is very special in the third movement, ostensibly based on the reaction of commuters on a New York railway platform as they heard the RMS Lusitania had been torpedoed on 7 May 1915. Ives takes the gospel hymn In the Sweet Bye and Bye and passes it among several ‘voices’; there are barrel-organ effects and an offstage choir, too. Sinclair creates a deep, gathering swell here that’s profoundly moving; it’s an unforgettable surge of emotion that neither Davis – nor anyone else – can match.

Listening to Davis Mark 1 in this set I was struck by the complexity of Ives’s colour palette and how well it’s represented in the Radio 3 recording. As I’ve pointed out before, these London performances have an ease and ardour that I don’t always hear in the Melbourne ones. I suppose one could argue that the live experience is very different, but I sense the conductor – nearly twenty years younger – is in a passionate and proselytizing mood, and that’s what really makes the difference. Those Barbican performances really need to be collected and released commercially, for they are indispensable additions to the Ives archive.

Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting, is another set of snaps from the family album. The Melbournians are at their most elegant in this piece, which is scored for chamber forces. The light, sensibly balanced recording dovetails neatly with Davis’s airy and affectionate response to Old Folks Gatherin’. And despite being a quintessential American symphony it echoes to the sounds of old Europe, especially in the dancing central movement, Children’s Day. It’s all so crisply done, and the orchestra are in virtuosic form. As for the finale, Communion, it’s poised and possessed of a lovely, seamless line.

I have several fine recordings of The Camp Meeting, including those of Leonard Bernstein (CBS-Sony), Andrew Litton (Hyperion), Leonard Slatkin (RCA), and the indefatigable Mr Sinclair, but there’s one that trumps them all. I am, of course, referring to the recent Seattle Symphony album with Ludovic Morlot, which was a Recording of the Month and very nearly a Recording of the Year. One only has to listen to the ‘genial baroquerie’ of the first movement and the ‘vital, binding spirit’ that shines through in the third to realise just how plain many conductors sound in this music. Davis Mark 2 is attractive enough, but his London performance strikes me as the more spontaneous of the two.

I first heard the Fourth Symphony, with its kaleidoscope of hymns and popular tunes, via the classic CBS/Stokowski LP from 1965; it was also my introduction to the composer’s intriguing musical universe. Davis and the MSO are marvellous in the Prelude – now that really is maestoso – and the controlled anarchy of Comedy. The wildness of it all is as intoxicating as ever, and Davis holds it all together very well indeed. HIs London performance is still one of the most volatile and exciting I know, and while this newcomer isn’t as unbuttoned one senses a new thoughtfulness and maturity here that illuminates the music in other ways.

Despite some reservations about the sound in previous volumes I’m happy to report that Chandos have excelled themselves with this one; balances are good and there’s a pleasing blend of clarity and weight. Speaking of blend, the Australian players are remarkably refined in the Fugue, which is really quite moving. But it’s the Finale, with its otherworldly introduction, that’s very immersive. How meticulously Davis frames this magical apotheosis, delighting in its fantail of colours and rhythms. Alas, there’s no theremin, but there is a new-found loftiness to Davis’s reading – a spirituality, if you like – that’s as unexpected as it is rewarding. As for those dying beats at the close, they seem more enigmatic than ever.

Yes, there are more compelling versions of all these works, but taken on its own terms this is probably the finest instalment of Davis’s Melbourne cycle thus far. Older and wiser now, this conductor is looking beyond bright sensation and settling on subtler things. This release is made all the more desirable by its sensitive engineering – no unwanted ‘hi-fi moments’ here – and Mervyn Cooke’s extensive notes.

Fine performances all; collectors of this series need not hesitate.

Dan Morgan

 

 




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