June 26, 2008


Ives: Orchestral Sets Nos. 1-3. Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus conducted by James Sinclair. Naxos. $8.99.

Copland: The Tender Land (Suite); Piano Concerto; Old American Songs, Volumes 1 and 2. Benjamin Pasternack, piano; St. Charles Singers and Elgin Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Hanson. Naxos. $8.99.

Corigliano: The Red Violin Caprices; Sonata for Violin and Piano; Thomson: Three Portraits (1944-7); Five Ladies (1983); Eight Portraits (1928-40). Philippe Quint, violin; William Wolfram, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

      These releases from the Naxos “American Classics” line showcase some important works, and some lesser ones, by some very different composers – and, even within a single composer’s works, show some very different approaches. The most significant of the three CDs features all three of Ives’ Orchestral Sets in their first-ever complete recording – which is also the first recording of Version 1 of the first Set and the first recording and performance of the third Set. Strange and important works, these, combining the serious and the popular in Ives’ unique way, and handled quite well by American Ives specialist James Sinclair and the decidedly non-American musicians in Malmö, Sweden – proving that Ives is nowadays playable (and played) around the world, not just in the U.S. Orchestral Set No. 1 is his well-known Three Places in New England, but it is not familiar in the version heard here, which lacks the opening chord heard in the more commonly performed second version and which also simplifies (for players and listeners alike) the textural complexities of the third movement, “The Housatonic at Stockbridge.” Listeners familiar with the second version may find this one a bit pale, but in fact its sonic world has a validity of its own, and some of its musical lines are distinctly easier for the ear to follow. Orchestral Set No. 2 is interesting for a first-movement tune reminiscent of Stephen Foster (the movement was originally called “An Elegy to Stephen Foster” before Ives gave it its permanent name, “An Elegy to Our Forefathers”). Also, this set is the only one with a choral element – part of an unusual mixture (well, just about everything in Ives is unusual) of the Latin Te Deum (intoned by the chorus) with the hymn The Sweet By and By (heard only instrumentally, without voices). The third set is an assemblage and realization, not a completed work. Its serenely atmospheric third movement is particularly interesting – but that is the movement of which the fewest sketches exist, so it is hard to know how closely the realization (by Nors Josephson) reflects what Ives would have done. The first two movements, edited by David Gray Porter, exist in fuller form (especially the first); and if this final Orchestral Set should not be thought of as fully by Ives, it could clearly not have been laid out, even as sketches, by anyone else.

Ives was far from the only American composer to include more-serious and more-popular elements in his music. In fact, Aaron Copland’s output would fall rather neatly into the “popular” and “serious” categories if Copland had not continually blurred the boundaries. The Tender Land, one of his two operas, was clearly conceived within a “serious” form, but Copland himself thought it came across as something closer to a musical – a more “popular” form. The opera itself, a period piece set during the Depression, was never much of a success, but Copland’s three-movement Suite packs some emotional punch and includes a middle-movement “Party Scene” reminiscent of Rodeo and Billy the Kid. The Piano Concerto is also in an overtly “serious” form, and this two-movement 1926 work does open with a sophisticated slow movement – but its longer second movement is full of Jazz Era bounce and high spirits. And the two sets of Old American Songs – 10 songs in all – are quite clearly in “popular” mode, including folk and minstrel tunes and even children’s songs (“I Bought Me a Cat” and “The Little Horses”). Originally written for voice and piano, the songs were transcribed by Copland for voice and orchestra but are heard on this CD in chorus-and-orchestra arrangements by other composers – and remain quite effective in this form. All the performers on this recording are sensitive to and involved in the music, with Benjamin Pasternack especially good in the Piano Concerto.

      Perhaps the popular/serious divide is a more widespread characteristic of American composers than is generally acknowledged, because some of it also appears in the new CD of music by John Corigliano and Virgil Thomson. Corigliano’s Oscar-winning score for the 1997 film The Red Violin (in the “popular” mode) continues to inspire the composer, who not only made a serious violin concerto out of it but also created a set of caprices – actually a theme and five variations, here recorded for the first time. The variations’ moods range from folklike to strictly Paganinian, and Philippe Quint plays them all with evident relish. Quint, with pianist William Wolfram, also does a fine job with the entirely serious Sonata for Violin and Piano, which is early Corigliano (dating to 1963, when the composer was 25) and which shows strong command of traditional forms and good balance between the instruments.

      Virgil Thomson’s music makes an interesting pairing with Corigliano’s: Thomson’s short “portrait” pieces for solo violin or violin and piano also partake of a combination of seriousness and levity. Three Portraits dates to 1940 as a solo piano work and was arranged for violin and piano by Samuel Dushkin in 1947 – with Dushkin cleverly giving the third piece, “In a Bird Cage: A Portrait of Lies Deharme” to solo violin. The portraiture here and in the other works on this CD is rarely of famous people, although the longest piece in Five Ladies (still lasting only three minutes) is of Alice Toklas, well known for her relationship with Gertrude Stein – while the fourth of the Eight Portraits for solo violin is of Stein herself, but is whimsically called “Miss Gertrude Stein as a young girl. Most of the portraits are witty, pleasant and lighthearted, although the last and longest of the Eight Portraits, “Ruth Smallens,” is a more emotional four-minute work. Whether played by Quint and Wolfram or by Quint alone, all these short pieces show a pleasantly effective blend of music that is serious with the more popularly tinged variety.

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