West Redding, how did Ives receive the Second Symphony premiere?
In legend he heard it on the maid's radio and did a little dance
of joy afterward. In reality he was dragged next door to the Ryders'
to hear the broadcast and, unlike similar occasions, sat quietly
through the whole thing. It was one of his soft pieces, as he called
them; it was also the warmest audience reception of his life. As
the cheers broke out everybody in the room looked his way. Ives
got up, spat in the fireplace, and walked into the kitchen without
a word. Nobody could figure out whether he was too disgusted or
too moved to talk. Likely it was the latter.
Jan Swafford, Charles Ives: A Life with Music
necessarily. Like the quote above, this recording comes in on an
air of revisionism, and shows how Ives' reaction could have been
one of disgust after all. Leonard Bernstein's
premiere of the Second Symphony and his subsequent championing
of the composer's music have become a cornerstone of the Bernstein
legend, and the first of his two recordings of this symphony has
been held up as a benchmark by which all others must be measured.
That is, until now.
Jonathan Elkus points out in the Editor's Note for this recording,
the 1951 score that Bernstein and others have used contains an incredible
number of inaccuracies - nearly a thousand, according to the Ives
Society, which has brought out a new edition of the score. Ives
biographer Jan Swafford mentions that age and numerous health problems
limited the composer's ability to proofread his scores later in
life, though he stubbornly insisted on doing so. With this in mind,
the number of errors that made it into print is only understandable.
easy to condone is what turns out to be Bernstein's cavalier treatment
of the music. He made a substantial cut in the finale, ignored Ives's
tempo markings and prolonged the famous "Bronx cheer"
discord at the end of the score. According to Elkus, Bernstein did
not prolong the discord until he made his first recording of the
piece four years after the premiere. Nevertheless, the practice
became a trademark not only for Bernstein, but also for performances
of the Ives Second in general, even though it is not written in
is the first recording of the Ives Society score, giving us the
chance to hear this symphony as Ives (left) originally intended
it. As such, conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn and the Nashville Symphony
do Ives proud. They have the full measure of this work, giving the
introductory Andante moderato a wonderful sense of flow and nostalgia
- sentiment without sentimentality, just as Ives probably would
have wanted - before plunging gently, warmly but slightly tongue-in-cheek
into the Allegro.
Adagio cantabile, originally intended for the First Symphony
before Ives replaced it at his teacher Horatio Parker's behest,
is played with an enchanting sweetness, and whoever played the brief
cello solo deserves an honorable mention - his cadence perfectly
mirrors the feeling of happy remembrance Schermerhorn brings out
in this music. If that does not melt your heart, the strings at
the passage beginning at 6:06 will; that surge of emotion, gauged
and built up to as well as it is, will still put a lump in your
to fear, though, because after the dignified Brahmsian tone of the
Lento maestoso, the Nashvillians skip gracefully and light-heartedly
into the Allegro molto vivace. Comparing the performance
of this movement to Bernstein's reminded me of something historian
Walter Kerr wrote about Laurel and Hardy in his book The Silent
Max Morath has explained how, in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, the stately quadrille was transformed into
ragtime. Silent film comedy may be said to have begun as ragtime.
Laurel and Hardy turned it back into a stately quadrille.
not ignoring the ragtime element inherent in Ives' music - a factor
that Bernstein played up to the nines - Schermerhorn lends this
movement a disarming poise and charm, letting the music flow smoothly
even as it steps over a banana peel only to fall into a manhole.
The humor is not downplayed, but merely allowed to speak for itself,
making the dissonance at the end more satisfying - and, at a much
shorter duration, more of a sudden goosing than the raspberry Bernstein
players do an excellent job of pointing up the many quotes of American
folk songs in this work - enough to make this work a cornucopia
of 19th century Americana - just enough to catch our attention,
but not so much as to caricature these quotes or unravel the symphonic
fabric. It is a slightly lower voltage recording than Bernstein's,
but only slightly, and both Schermerhorn's interpretation and the
playing of the Nashville Symphony feel much more natural, less pulled
out of shape here and there, than that of Lenny and his New Yorkers.
In short, it is thoroughly enjoyable and wears extremely well on
the Second Symphony on this recording, the Robert Browning Overture
is the sole work from a series Ives planned, based on various literary
figures (though some of the sketches for the others ended up, among
other places, in the Concord Sonata).
the Second Symphony is one of Ives' most accessible scores, the
overture is one of his thorniest, with episodes of mystery depicting
"the baffling unknown" bookending dissonant, polythematic
and polytonal passages that literally roar into life, layer after
layer of music literally falling on top of one another, adding to
the work's complexity. Although this may make the piece sound daunting
- and, to be truly fair, it is not for the faint of heart - it is
actually a fascinating work that can prove rewarding for listeners
who are patient with it.
as with the Second Symphony, this is the first recording of the
overture in a new, thoroughly corrected Ives Society printing of
the score. Likewise, this is probably the most satisfying reading
of this piece since Leopold Stokowski's pioneering recording for
Columbia. Yearning, passionate, brooding and resolute, each facet
of the music is given its full due yet allowed room and space to
breathe and sing. The players acquit themselves admirably, while
Schermerhorn paces the music expertly and balances the orchestral
forces so we can hear everything going on with crystalline clarity
- quite a job with everything Ives throws into this composition.
this work at the beginning of this disc was both a gutsy and an
extremely smart move on Naxos' part. Having the overture follow
the symphony would have both trivialized it and made it seem anti-climactic.
Letting it precede the symphony, though taking the risk of alienating
some listeners, allows the overture to stand on its own and shows
it as the significant piece that it is. And for those who may be
challenged by the score's more harrowing qualities, there is always
the balm of the symphony that follows.
recording is one reason to be extremely thankful for the Naxos American
Classics series. There are a great many scores of merit by American
composers that have been left by the wayside, and if the quality
of the other performances in this series approaches the excellence
shown in this one, then the series shows extraordinarily good promise
Kerr, Walter, The Silent Clowns (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
Jan, Charles Ives: A Life with Music (New York: W.W. Norton
& Co., 1996), 428-429.
favorite Ives quote is when the composer told the man complaining
ahead of him in a Henry Cowell concert to "sit down and take
your dissonance like a man."
13.12.2000 ©Jonathan Yungkans
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