IVES: A Symphony: New England Holidays; Central Park in the Dark; The Unanswered Question (original & revised versions). Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. CBS MK-42381 (CD).
IVES: Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3 ("A Camp Meeting"); The Unanswered Question (revised version). New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting. CBS MK-42407 (CD).
This is about as close as we have come in this country to an Ives performing tradition. Which is to say that, despite the occasional one-shot from the likes of Marriner or Stokowski, Michael Tilson Thomas is the only conduc tor in the last 25 years to have seriously challenged Leonard Bernstein in this repertoire.
Part of that is because of its genuinely esoteric nature. Rare is the performer, whatever his background, who can grasp Ives whole and distill unity from the apparent chaos. (And, for what it is worth, I am increasingly convinced that some of it is chaos.) Perhaps that is the price one pays for being a maverick composer, at least when it leads to the almost psychotic isolationism Ives ended up cultivating.
Bernstein responded to that in unashamedly romantic fashion, cutting through some of the music's thornier aspects to its emotional core, which he then served up with unparalleled conviction and, in the case of the Second Symphony, panache. Here is Ives, for all his European-derived training, striding into a brave new world of American music, as unafraid of polytonality as he is of his New England heritage, evident in his seemingly wild juxtaposition of Yankee hymn tunes, patriotic songs and even country dances.
To date Thomas' Ives recordings have been generally more direct, more "classical" if you will, with, on the first two, the extra measure of cultivation the Concertgebouw Orchestra brings. His Second and Third Symphonies, for example, as compared with the above-listed Bernstein reissues (sensibly coupled on a single 70-minute CD) though not without sentiment are less overtly expressive, seldom letting the music's emotional character gain the upper hand.
That is not always a bad thing. In his new recording of the "Holidays Symphony," for instance, this time with the Chicago Symphony, it results in a disciplined statement in which the music's various lines and directions - and there are many - are never in doubt. Thus, amid the controlled atmosphere of "Washington's Birthday" even the grand melange toward the end of the barn dance (largely built on "Turkey in the Straw") is unusually clear. Ditto the finale of "The Fourth of July," lacking some of the exuberance one hears in the Bernstein recording (currently out of print) but making up for it with even greater instrumental and rhythmic expertise.
So involved is that piece, by the way (consisting, like most of Ives, of 50 of your favorite pieces - all at once), that Bernstein employed a second conductor to help sort out its complexities. And although there is nothing here to match the palpable iciness he brings to the opening of "Washington's Birthday" or the extra swagger of his "Thanksgiving and Forefather's Day," it is under Thomas that the last achieves real strength and Puritan austerity.
For myself, I would not be without either, especially as the Thomas disc is filled out with not only "Central Park in the Dark" (in which Bernstein used two conductors, Seiji Qzawa and Maurice Peress) but both the original and revised versions of "The Unanswered Question." Again, in each Bernstein proves the more imaginative interpreter, capturing not only the music's fantasy but its unpredictability. Still, there is much to be said for Thomas' greater distance, even if in the latter it leads him to focus more on the background gloom than the question (posed by the solo trumpet).
Even from the first Ives conceived of the "Holidays" as separate pieces, and the CD allows one to extract them at will. (As the liner notes argue, they do make a logical winter/spring/summer/autumn sequence, however.) And as far as I can determine this is the first time "Central Park" can be properly paired with its intended concert-mate, "The Unanswered Question," the latter in whichever edition the listener prefers (the differences are small).
As for the Bernstein CD, the sound of the original analog recordings (which date back a quarter-century and beyond) has been generally flattened and de-coarsened in the digital remastering. Occasionally I miss the added punch of the originals, but either way (and despite some editing) this is, together with Thomas,' the finest Ives Second I know, with an equally indispensible Third.
HARRIS: Symphony No. 3; SCHUMAN: Symphony No. 3. New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting. Deutsche Grammophon 419780-2 (CD).
Is three somehow a magic number for native-born symphonists? For a long time Roy Harris' Symphony No. 3 was the most popular American symphony (these days I suspect it is the Copland Third) and, it might be argued, among William Schuman's several works in this form it is the Third that still commands the greatest respect.
Harris,' however, was first, and as early as the year of its premiere, 1939, was heralded in the pages of Modern Music as "mature in every sense, beautifully proportioned, eloquent, restrained and affecting." The author of those words was the young Leonard Bernstein, then a Harvard undergraduate, who went on to record the work with the orchestra of which he later became music director, the New York Philharmonic.
Now he has re-recorded it in one of the more satisfying entries in his ongoing reappraisal of his discographic output for DG. For although here and there the earlier recording gained something in headlong intensity, in general I prefer the added expanse - 18 minutes vs. 17 minutes - in what is already an unusually compact utterance.
Indeed the effect is to enhance the very qualities the 20-year-old Bernstein called attention to in 1939, namely the music's proportion, eloquence and restraint, without neglecting its rough-hewn simplicity. For Harris' great breakthrough, if such it was, was to take native-sounding materials and treat them in generally abstract ways, in the case of the Third culminating in a driving toccata.
Whatever one's assessment, for such a short work it cast a remarkably long shadow - one that stretches to the Schuman Third, written three years later, and perhaps by extension to Copland. Witness the Fugue that brings Part 1 of the Schuman to a close, as it does the finale of the Copland Third. Part 2, however, concludes with a Toccata, a la Harris.
Again, we are dealing with yet another Bernstein/NYPO re-recording, and one that like their Copland and Harris Thirds I find by and large an improvement. In some ways the new one may be a little looser in spots but it is still stongly argued, with even greater intensity in some sections (e.g., the end of the Passacaglia) and, in the case of the Fugue, even more impactive percussion.
In short, a winner.