Charles Ives: Symphony n° 1 – Symphony n° 2 – Symphony n° 3 (“The Camp Meeting”) – Symphony n° 4
Joanne Pearce Martin (piano), Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Marta Gardolinska (conductor), Gustavo Dudamel (director-conductor)
Recording: Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California (February 2020) – 121’51
Deutsche Grammophon (Distributed by Universal Music) – Booklet in English
Born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1874, Charles Ives was the son of a Civil War Union bandleader who encouraged him to be a composer. Ives not only followed his father’s lead, but he was full of progressive ideas about classical composing, symphonic structure, and traditional American music.
Charles Ives’ dynamically neoclassical works were roundly ignored and even ridiculed by the Euro-centric musical establishment in the US in the early 20th century, but his younger composers were recognizing their import. Aaron Copland, considered a 20th century master of symphonic Americanism, championed Ives in the 1930s as a true American innovator. His music is still being discovered more than a century later. Gustavo Dudamel, musical director-conductor, leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic (LA Phil) in sumptuous performances of the complete Symphonies which were recorded in the Disney Concert Hall in February 2020.
It took a new generation of composer-conductors to perform them in symphony halls with regularity and to acknowledge how defining Ives’ music was and is. It is impressive that these vivid performances of Ives’ works are now available on the Deutsche Grammophon just seven months later in this difficult year of industry production showdowns due to the Coronavirus.
Composed between 1898 and 1906, Ives’ first symphony is already understated through liberated compositional themes. And the detailing by LA Phil immediately sets the standard for the entire Ives cycle on these recordings. A fiery clarinet solo opens up as a symphonic tone poem with shadowy undercurrents. The solo voices of the orchestra float through with free-flowing progressions. The “Adagio” is haltingly meditative and almost cinematic in its modernism. The LA Phil’s woodwinds are the driving protagonists; the “Scherzo” is as puckish as Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with the LA Phil essaying all of its shimmering esprit.
Symphony n° 2
“Andante moderato” - elegant classicism opens Ives’ Symphony n° 2. The LA Phil brings both its lyricism and understated drama. The haunting violin and oboe dialogues at the end of the movement are rather rote while the “Allegro” passage strikes as editorial and/or wryly academic, as composed and performed here.
Symphony n° 3 (“The Camp Meeting”)
When Ives won the Pulitzer Prize in the 1940s for his Symphony n° 3 (composed in 1904), he gave half the money to his younger contemporary Lou Harrison, who had already been a disciple of Ives’ music, and he conducted its premiere. Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony n° 3 and noted for its evocations of Americana, folkloric qualities (Ives’ works about poets). The pastoral narrative of “Old Folks Gatherin’ “, nonetheless, has some more intriguing musical depth than just a symphonic pictorial. “Children’s Day” is a sprinting orchestral befitting its theme with Prokofievian spikiness. Dudamel exalts its theatricality, even as he reins in tempos in this movement, giving it more depth and a chamber music drive. The cathartic final movement, “Communion”, has elegiac modernism. The reeds shadow the strings with a progression that builds tension and emotional release. The Pulitzer was awarded in 1947. Maybe the committee was responding to its prescient Copland-esque atmospherics that dominated the concert halls as distinctly American music.
Symphony n° 4
Joanne Pearce Martin ignites Ives’ Symphony n° 4 (“Prelude. Maestroso”) in the chilling piano solo that fades into a violin serenade and caressing harmonies of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. But sardonic symphonics return in the “Comedy. Allegretto” with angular, mysterious evocations of the American rebellious spirit in all of its contradictions.
Those who are new to Ives’ repertory will find these symphonies as a good place to begin. Detailing by Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil give defining performances inside this collection.
Lewis J. Whittington