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Issue 108
This article was last updated on
16 January, 2001

More Stuff:



American Music

American Christmas Carols

Bernstein, Leonard

A Tribute to Lenny

Recommended Recordings

Candide An Inktroduction

On the Town. LSO/Tilson-Thomas

Mass An Inktroduction

West Side Story. Te Kanawa/Carreras, etc./Bernstein

Carter, Elliott
Holiday Overture Symphony No 1 Piano Concerto

Corigliano,John Symphony No.1 "Of Rage and Remembrance" - An Inktroduction

Cowell,Henry
Piano Concerti

Daugherty "American Icons": Various/London Sinfonietta/Daugherty, et al

Elias The Prayer Cycle. Various/Schwartz

Gershwin, George
"Dayful of Song" and other works. Dallas SO/Litton

Porgy and Bess - An Ink-troduction

Charles Ives
Robert Browning Overture. Symphony No.2
Concord Sonata, Violin Sonatas No.1-4

Sousa
The Stars and Stripes Forever and other "Great Marches".

Star Trek
The Music of Star Trek Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Williams, John
The Phantom Menace (Star Wars Episode I) - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Charles IVES (1874-1954)

Robert Browning Overture
Symphony No.2

Nashville Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Kenneth Schermerhorn

NAXOS American Classics 8.559076
[41:40] budget-price

 
by Jonathan Yungkans

Back in 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


Not 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.

As 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.

Less 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 the score.

This 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.

The 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 throat.

Not 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 Clowns:

The entertainer-musician 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.

While 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 made it.

Schermerhorn's 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 repeated hearings.

Preceding 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).

While 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.

Just 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.

Placing 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.

This 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 indeed.

Bibliography:
Kerr, Walter, The Silent Clowns (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), 329.

Swafford, Jan, Charles Ives: A Life with Music (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1996), 428-429.

 

Jonathan Yungkans 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."

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819: 13.12.2000 ©Jonathan Yungkans

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