1901, 1902, 1910, 1911, 1916, 1919, 1929, 1973, 1976, 1994, 1995, 2000, Music

Ives: The Symphonies; Orchestral Sets 1 and 2 (2000) by Various Artists

This is one of those Decca compilations that takes recordings from all over its catalogue – in this case from the mid ’70s and the mid ’90s – to create an ostensibly “complete” collection of a composer’s works in a given field, in this case Ives’ work for large orchestra. Of course it’s not complete, as it’s only the first four symphonies (Ives wrote 5 plus an unfinished one) and only two of the three” orchestral sets” – sort of American tone poems, though that description isn’t entirely  accurate…. And, to fit on the disks, the sequencing is totally out of whack as well – another hallmark of these types of compilations) And so, though I may like the music, this compilation is a pain in the ass.

The first symphony is Ives’ most traditional symphony, something that should not surprise us in the least. It still has echoes of his style but is, to my ears, remarkably Romantic (rather than modernist/post-modernist) compared to his later works.

I have heard both the 2nd and 3rd symphonies before. You can read my comments about them here.

From the opening bars of Ives fourth symphony, it’s clear this is Ives and he’s going to do whatever the hell he wants. The opening movement has to be one of the most unconventional opening movements in the history of the form, if not the most. There is perhaps nothing else like it. It may be Ives’s greatest work. It’s certainly among his most daring for large orchestra, and that’s something, considering the man we’re talking about.

The first “orchestral set,” otherwise known as “Three Places in New England,” is really like three American tone poems. All three movements are inspired by places in New England (shockingly). It contains some of Ives’ most compelling music and there’s a reason it is, perhaps, his most famous work – now, anyway, as it wasn’t performed regularly until the 1970s. It is music like this that once again puts into stark relief the bizarre neglect Ives received. It’s one of the great pieces of music of its era, I think. (1929 version, by the way.)

The second “Orchestral set” is assembled the same way as the first: three disparate evocations of moments combined together. Only this time there’s no overriding theme as there was with the first set. The first piece is brief and unlike anything else I’ve heard from him. It’s almost the orchestra equivalent of one of Satie’s, albeit with more Ivesian flair. The second piece is about as Ives as it gets and recalls much of his most famous orchestrated work in its lack of adherence to tradition. (It’s certainly as radical as the 4th symphony.) The third piece, like much of Ives’s most radical work, sounds like it could have been written decades later, when it became fashionable to physically move groups of the performers, as it opens with a barely audible choir and slowly builds to a chaotic and impressive climax. If anything this set is even more impressive than the first. It’s one of his greatest works.

This compilation would come highly recommended if it didn’t feature three different orchestras  conducted by three different conductors from two different decades. How am I, the casual listener, supposed to know about the the idiosyncrasies that could be changing the performances? Yes, that happens with every interpretation, but at least with a proper cycle recording, you get one interpretation, not three.


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