Charles Ives: The Three Orchestral Sets

Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus/James Sinclair (Naxos 8.559353)

6 July 2008 2.5 stars

Ives: The Three Orchestral Sets Naxos continues its fine American Classics series with this solid new release that groups together Charles Ives' Three Orchestral Sets, the third of which is appearing on record for the first time after some generally decent reconstructive editorial work on its behalf by David Gray Porter and Nors Josephson. James Sinclair conducts with his usual flair for Ives' textural and formal conflicts. If the performance can be said to veer at times towards a slightly too precious intimation of the composer's sublime leanings in the slow sections, it is nevertheless also true that the internal logic of collage that is fundamentally proposed by the music (encapsulated in the very idea of the set as genre) is happily upheld and enjoyed by conductor and band elsewhere.

The First Set (perhaps better known by its subtitle Three Places in New England) is heard here in its original, less familiar version. The work appears largely intact, in fact, albeit with some of the more dense details having been shaved off in order to aid ease of performance; the main casualties seem to have been some of the rhythmic complexities of the third movement, 'The Housatonic at Stockbridge'.

The opening movement of the First Set, 'Impression of the St. Gauden's in Boston Common', is a typically slow entrance into one of Ives' bizarre suites of appropriated and original tunes. Its material is constructed along the lines of the slow, undulating string lines of the opening of the composer's Central Park in the Dark (and many other pieces besides). The music is speculatively atonal, with effectively ambiguous elisions into tonality occurring at certain cadence points, most notably the end. It is a sensuous atonality to be sure, of a kind with that of Scriabin in his later piano works for example, and the players of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra (particularly the string and wind sections)respond with a beauty of tone and a delicacy of intonation that speaks of a quietly accomplished musicianship throughout the ensemble. The emotional tenor of the music, commemorating as it does a weary but resolute regiment of soldiers of the American Civil War, is communicated well by the performers. Less effective is Sinclair's choice of tempo. The music seems to be reaching forward to the hushed stillness of Feldman, but the conductor paces things in such a way as to intimate tranquillity without ever reaching it – the performance is certainly slow, but with the frequency of events designed by Ives (the music is simply too eventful at this speed) it needs to be either slower, or faster, to avoid aesthetic hedging. That said the richly languorous phrasing and delicate ear for subtle dynamic shadings that Sinclair displays, combined with the fine playing from the orchestra, makes for a very interesting opening to the disc.

The second movement ('Children's Holiday at Putnam's Camp') provides a very effective comic, Dixieland-like contrast to the two intense outer movements. Full of quotation (mainly from some of the composer's earlier works, particularly Country Band March), the performance exudes a great sense of elasticity; material is no sooner introduced as we are pitched into a different rhythm and texture without concern for streamline or sense. This predominantly joyful music is served well by Sinclair's merry refusal to iron out its rough edges, rather he makes a virtue of them, and the internal illogic of the movement is maintained to the end. The final movement, 'The Housatonic', returns to the spiritual ardour of the first, though here that ardour has been redirected into a more poignant, hymnal repose. The strange tone of the climax, at once triumphant and tragic, comes across well. The performance of this finale is generally evocative, though the earlier problems of a too measured delicacy apply here to a degree.

The Second Set, like the first, moves through a slow-fast-slow design that again shows Ives' music to have been borne quite decisively out of a sublime muse. The first movement ('An Elegy to Our Forefathers') rehearses, very effectively it must be said, the sort of quiet/louder-with-undertow-of-the-quiet-material/quiet arc often found in Ives. The scoring is luxuriant, with a real sense of a timbral and gestural panorama being occasioned by the inclusion of offstage harp and percussion ensemble that sound repeated motifs at different pitch levels underneath the gliding string lines. Sinclair ensures clear differentiation between the different instrumental groupings; even between the upper and lower strings an entirely different level of intensity and style of articulation can be heard. This is a nuanced, delicate performance of music that is certainly ethereal. If anything the performance can be said to be almost too faint, too tantalising for its own good.  

The second movement ('The Rockstrewn Hills Join in the People's Outdoor Meeting') is much less buoyant than its counterpart in the first orchestral set, though it is as busy in texture and event. The prominent piano part means that inevitably Ives' Emerson Concerto is recalled, and indeed the rather gauche opening of strident piano doubling a dissonant repeated string figure leads us straight away into the sort of forward thrust established so well in the concerto. The music quickly suggests other reminiscences however, with the abiding effect being of a decayed rag (thus the importance of the piano) entirely alive to the wonders of the wide symphonic palette. The set of tunes outlined here inhabit an imagined folk aesthetic where cocktails of half-remembered tunes collide with other tunes and sounds in a great big flare-up of sound. Every section of the orchestra comes out shining here, with the bolshy brass and the bluesy winds consistently impressing their idiomatic finesse upon the listener. Sinclair marshals his troops very well, with the inconstant rhythmic profile of the music quickly becoming a virtue in his hands. If only American folk music actually sounded as Ives imagined it in his head!

The performance of the final movement ('Hanover Square)' is a highlight of the disc, and is properly rousing in the communal way its composer intended. The movement took its inspiration from a moment when Ives heard a crowd of people on a train platform, after learning of the sinking of an American submarine by the Germans (an incident which meant war was imminent for the Americans), spontaneously joining in a rendition of a gospel hymn The Sweet By and By. The movement starts with the chamber chorus affectingly intoning the Latin Te Deum, effectively taking up the role of the string cantus firmi of the previous slow movements. The singers display a unity of execution that is continued throughout the rest of the performance by their compatriots. The strings take the hymnal motif and gradually develop it, with corresponding developments and expansions throughout the orchestra. Finally the whole group of instrumentalists glory together in an apotheosis of moving humanity where the principal melody of the gospel hymn is finally resoundingly heard in brass and strings (though of course this is undercut by Ives' irrepressible urge towards ambiguous shadings and commentary). Sinclair shows himself a master of the measured crescendo, with every new swell hitting its target, until we are left prone in anticipation for the climax, which indeed doesn't disappoint. The ambiguity of the final bars is nicely articulated too.           

The Third Orchestral Set, the longest of the three, shows Ives' creative talents to have remained undimmed even into his final period of composing before he abandoned the activity in the face of apparent creative torpor. Again, the set outlines a slow-fast-slow pattern, with the first movement here being especially affecting with its glacial piano ornaments and its moving solo violin and brass lines (all played with a subtle and graceful expressivity). The conductor really seems to have found his stride by now, with the opening movement matching his earlier emotional achievements in the corresponding sections of the previous sets, with a new found sense of focus. The performance of the first movement achieves an ineffable transcendence that was just out of reach elsewhere. The second movement is another primarily jubilant brew of various tunes, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes jaunty, but always wrestled together with Ives' unique spirit of humanistic transcendence. It is not as focused a movement as the other middle sections, there seems to be too many excursions into faintly un-Ivesian string shakings, but it is generally successful, with well taken solos by viola, horn and piccolo flutes padding out the structure well. Quotations abound again – as ever his song They Are There! seems to have been in his mind – and the chaotic, percussion heavy climax is a joy to behold. Sinclair ensures this climax has an appropriate lack of grace and finesse.

Less successful is the finale, despite the performers' best efforts. The first two movements were largely intact in the surviving sketches, as the sleeve notes to the release point out, but the finale required more broad resuscitation. All the notes, we are told, are Ives', but unfortunately it is plainly obvious that it is by someone else's (Nors Josephson) hand that the movement reached fruition. The scoring is far too skeletal for Ives-it is only in the latter stages that any sense of busy clutter emerges – and it appears unidiomatic at times; the arpeggiations of the harp at the opening suggest an anaemic Mahler more than they do Charles Ives. Moreover the wonder of Ives is that he always undercuts any emotional current with gestures outside of that remit, as in the occasional outbursts of energy in the opening movement of the disc, but this finale fails in this regard, concentrating as it does always on a very anxious repose. It is an extended exploration of the kind of sublime senescence displayed in the finale of the fourth symphony, here with plenty of instances of soloistic serenity that verge consistently on the mildly ominous, but any praise it merits for the successful achievement of that end should be tempered by an accusation of its slightly alien nature. However that said it is performed well, with intimations of transcendence always bubbling below the surface, and it is certainly an admirable and interesting exercise in aesthetic reconstruction. The Third Set amounts to a fascinating addition to the Ives discography, and the performances of this and the other Sets on the disc are always insightful, and always fully committed.

By Stephen Graham