Ives: Decoration Day; The Fourth of July; Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day; The General Slocum; Overture in G Minor; Yale-Princeton Football Game; Postlude in F. Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus conducted by James Sinclair. Naxos. $8.99.
Beatles Go Baroque. Peter Breiner and His Chamber Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.
Charles Ives’ music was always a mixture of high art and low, even crude humor, drawing its expressiveness from highly complex rhythms and multitonality on the one hand and from the extremely simple harmonies of hymns on the other. Indeed, Ives often seems to be more than one composer inhabiting the same musical mind – as is clear in the very well played but rather oddly assorted works on a new Naxos CD in which Swedish forces are led by one of the top American Ives scholars and conductors, James Sinclair. The major piece here – three-quarters of it, anyway – is the Holidays Symphony. Therein lies the CD’s oddity. The symphony’s first movement is absent (Sinclair previously recorded it for Naxos with the Northern Sinfonia). Its second, third and fourth movements – Decoration Day, The Fourth of July and Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day – are given in order here, but not one after the other; they are separated by mostly shorter works that serve as what might be called punctuation points. The Holidays Symphony was never a musically unified piece; this disc’s arrangement treats it as separate tone poems, which is pretty much correct from a musical standpoint but is also a bit different from what Ives intended. All the movements are, in any case, played with considerable skill and, in the case of Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day, with the warmth that this piece – built by Ives from two of his early organ works – requires. As for the additional works here, The General Slocum portrays in music a horrendous 1904 explosion on an excursion boat – a disaster in which more than a thousand people died. The explosion itself resounds with considerable power and terror after Ives juxtaposes upbeat popular tunes of the day with ominous forebodings. Overture in G Minor is an early work that Ives wrote while studying music at Yale University. It sounds a bit like Tchaikovsky and other late Romantics, although even here, Ives’ unusual ideas about rhythm peek through. Postlude in F is an even earlier work – Ives wrote it for organ at age 15 and then orchestrated it while at Yale – and also quite a Romantic one, showing the influence of Wagner. Yale-Princeton Football Game is “low” Ives all the way, commemorating a famous 1897 game by re-creating the cheers, referee’s whistle and general enthusiasm. It originated as a piano improvisation, and even in Ives’ later, orchestrated version, it zips by quickly with a thoroughly uninhibited feel.
The issue of high and low art – to the extent that it is an issue – is scarcely confined to Ives’ music. Beatles Go Baroque mixes things up to a quite delightful degree. This is scarcely the first time the Beatles’ songs have been recast in the form of older music – decades ago, there was even an LP called The Baroque Beatles Book. But the new Naxos CD, arranged and conducted by Peter Breiner, does not simply take Beatles tunes and set them in Baroque overture and dance formats. Instead, Breiner creates four works, each called a “Beatles Concerto Grosso” and each in the style of a different composer: Handel, Vivaldi, Bach and Corelli. The first, Handelian work includes “She Loves You,” “Lady Madonna,” “Fool on the Hill” and two other songs. The second piece, in Vivaldi’s style and also in five movements, starts with “A Hard Day’s Night” and ends with “Help,” and its use of violins – both solo and as a group – does indeed reflect Vivaldi’s approach. The third work, in the style of Bach, is more in the form of a Baroque suite than in that of a Concerto Grosso, opening with an Overture (“The Long and Winding Road”), continuing with four songs set in dance forms (including “Hey Jude” as a Polonaise!), and concluding with “Yellow Submarine.” The final piece on the CD, a four-movement work, is not specifically labeled as being in anyone’s style, but it reflects Corelli in its use of solo cello and violin and the overall feel of its arrangement. Beatles Go Baroque is not intended to be anything more than fun – Naxos even labels it as one of its “Light Classics” – but it offers an interesting melding of the structure of “serious” music with the catchy tunes and overall lightness of the popular-music world.