February 04, 2016
Ives: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4; The Unanswered Question; Central Park in the Dark. Seattle Symphony Chorale and Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.
Copland: Billy the Kid; El Salón Mexico; An Outdoor Overture; Rodeo. Colorado Symphony conducted by Andrew Litton. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).
There is something transcendental about the music of Charles Ives even a century after it was written. In one sense, this is scarcely a surprise, given Ives’ attraction to Transcendentalism. But in a different sense, it is nothing sort of astonishing. With a few very rare exceptions, such as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, how much music written early in the 20th century still sounds ultra-modern, sit-up-and-take-notice modern, early in the 21st? The Second Viennese School seems positively tame nowadays, the late Romantics and early neo-Romantics sound just as tied to the past as they wished to be, and the genuinely new thinking of composers such as Carl Nielsen no longer seems particularly revolutionary even though its subtleties and beauties remain impressive. But Ives’ music can still shock, can still force an audience to wonder what in heck the composer thought he was doing, and can still come across as a blend of seriousness and humor, of (on the one hand) old-fashioned techniques plus hymns plus folksongs and (on the other) extreme dissonance, polytonality and polyrhythms that even now are difficult to grasp. When Ives stopped writing music in the 1920s after saying that the notes would not do what he wanted them to anymore, the world lost the musical thoughts of a genuine American original, a composer so far ahead of his time that it is fair to suggest that his works will continue to delight, puzzle and outrage audiences for years to come. A generally excellent Ives CD from the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot, released on the orchestra’s own label, shows many facets of this multifaceted composer without ever leaving the impression that it has fully plumbed his depths or completely explored his heights. The highlight of the disc is an absolutely first-rate performance of Ives’ Symphony No. 4, one of his grandest, strangest and most confusing works, in which the ultra-radical and ultra-conservative sides of his output are displayed distinctly and clearly in succeeding movements (the second and third, respectively). Almost always presented using multiple conductors, as it is here (Morlot is assisted by Stilian Kirov, David Alexander Rahbee and Julia Tai), the work is in effect for multiple sub-orchestras, which need the additional conductors because they must often play without regard to each other but in such a way that their parts juxtapose (“blend” is not quite the right word) as Ives intended. Like many Ives works, this symphony raises philosophical questions without ever answering them, yet it can be enjoyed as absolute music without knowing anything of the underlying issues that Ives was exploring in it. The polytonality and intense dissonance make the symphony extremely difficult to absorb in a single hearing, and this recording well repays multiple performances: each time, something new in texture, melody or instrumentation comes through, and the work grows along with one’s understanding of it. There is one very unfortunate omission: the words for the first movement are not provided, and for all the fine singing by the Seattle Symphony Chorale, those words are needed. Listeners will gain much by looking them up before their first of many hearings.
The remainder of the disc is not quite at this level, but both The Unanswered Question and Central Park in the Dark are excellent in their own way. These pieces form a bit of a pair – Ives thought of the first as a contemplation of something serious, the second as a contemplation of nothing serious – and their sonic environment, especially the handling of the strings, shows close parallels. The trumpet’s seven intonations of the question are beautifully handled by David Gordon, with fine breath control and an actual sound of inquisitiveness at the end of each phrase. The string background, as clear in its portrayal of a probably indifferent universe as are the sounds of “Neptune, the Mystic” in Holst’s The Planets, is also beautifully managed. However, the woodwinds, which “speak up” in varying ways and eventually seem to be mocking the repeated question, are not quite biting enough; still, the playing is excellent. It is just as good in Central Park in the Dark, where the quiet nighttime setting and the raucous outbursts provide just as much contrast as Ives intended. When it comes to the Symphony No. 3, “The Camp Meeting,” however, Morlot falls a bit short: this generally accessible three-movement work tends to drag here. It is neither as heartfelt nor as bright in its middle movement as it can be. Again, though, the orchestra’s playing is at a very high level, and the disc as a whole is a wonderful reminder – one among many – of just how much Ives still has to say and just how intriguing it can be to listen to him saying it.
Aaron Copland aptly and pithily commented of Ives, “His complexities don’t always add up, but when they do, a richness of experience is suggested that is unobtainable in any other way.” That is about as good a summation of Ives’ music as anyone has offered – and it describes, to a certain, more-limited extent, the effect of Copland’s own music as well. That is, it refers to the totality of Copland’s music, which – like that of Ives – has elements of simplicity, naïveté and straightforwardness, and also has dense, complex and difficult-to-unravel portions. What is different in Copland is that he generally kept the simple and popular elements of his music separate from the complicated and intense ones, while Ives threw the different forms of communication together willy-nilly and without apparent concern for how confusing the result could sometimes be. In Copland’s case, it is the straightforward and more-popular works that, not surprisingly, became instant successes and have remained so. A new BIS recording of four of those works, featuring the Colorado Symphony under Andrew Litton, shows for the umpteenth time just why this portion of Copland’s production turns up again and again in the concert hall. The music is very well-made, with fine attention to instrumentation and excellent rhythmic and structural sensibilities. It is also comparatively unchallenging harmonically and thematically, in fact including folk-music elements in prominent ways that are quite different from those used by Ives with his frequent invocation of hymns and Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean. Copland’s two “Western” ballets, Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942), are gems: eminently danceable, filled with short and hummable tunes, sprinkled throughout with lyrical and dramatic elements, and structured so their stories can be easily followed or can simply be ignored in the pleasures of the music. Litton and the orchestra play them with relish and appear thoroughly to be enjoying the experience – Litton, a fine pianist, even does a turn at the honky-tonk piano in the Ranch House Party movement of Rodeo, and makes the music about as rollicking an experience as it can be. The dramatic elements of both ballets, including Copland’s clever use of percussion, are particularly effective in this recording, but the lyrical material does not get short shrift, either: everything flows smoothly and with a fine sense of contrast between sections and among themes within sections. The two shorter pieces on the recording also come off quite well. An Outdoor Overture (1938) is bright and brassy, as befits both its title and its atmosphere. And El Salón Mexico (1933-36), whose title is the name of a nightclub in mid-1930s Mexico, has a sort of quasi-folk flavor and South of the Border flair even though it does not contain any actual folk tunes. The more-difficult, more-demanding works by Copland tend to be underperformed, while the ones on this release tend to be, if anything, over-performed. But there is so much enjoyment here, such a feeling of joie de vivre, that the popularity of these pieces is eminently understandable – all the more so when performances are as skillful and high-spirited as these.