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Emerson Concerto (Overture; reconstructed by David G. Porter)
Symphony No.1

Alan Feinberg, Piano
National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/James Sinclair

Naxos 8.559175 [70:29]

Charles Ives left off working on his piano concerto when it was in a well advanced stage - "a developed draft, one or two stages from a completed score"' The performing version recorded at the RTE Concert Hall, Dublin in September 2002 sounds like the real thing; no doubt scholars will pore over the score in judgment. It was nearly completed in 1911, around the same time as Mahler's still controversial 10th symphony, and the comparison is pertinent. Ives didn't believe in final and definitive versions of his music - work is always in progress, "every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series". These ideas went on to become the first movement of the Concord Sonata and his stream of ideas flowed on to become Four Transcriptions from Emerson.

This approach to composition has become more acceptable in recent years, with revelatory recordings of earlier versions of canonic masterpieces (e.g. the BIS Sibelius Series). More recently many composers unashamedly recycle their music in different guises to continue exploring the potential of their material (sometimes, admittedly, to stretch and eke out parsomonious commission fees). Eyebrows are still sometimes raised, e.g. when at the Huddersfield Festival featured composer Luis de Pablo was challenged publicly by his host, festival director Richard Steinitz, as to whether he indulged in recomposition because he couldn't think of anything new instead!

Charles Ives had no doubts; he was generally "on the way - - somewhere beyond the horizon - - his Emerson pieces - - a journey of discovery, unfinished but no less heroic" (Jan Swafford). This concerto, four movements played continuously and lasting 25 mins, is radical and dissonant, always exploratory, the material neither developed nor repeated. It is a 'big' concerto, extending soloist and a full orchestra, and it makes for invigorating listening, its density of thought demanding re-hearing. Hopefully this recording will encourage live performances in UK (do follow my link for a fascinating interview about its history and recreation by David G. Porter and pianist Alan Feinberg, who premiered it with Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra in October 1998.)

The coupling is the three-quarter hour first symphony, a 'homework assignment' for Yale graduation, looking to Dvorak, sometimes over-extending good melodic themes, but remarkably fresh and with more than a hint of what was to come; comfortably scored and fairly reticent apart from grand perorations to close the first and final movements. The Irish orchestra is on its toes and the recorded sound is excellent, and well balanced with the piano. A fabulous ground-breaking bargain, unmissable at £4.99.

See also Silence Acccompanied (an Ives choral cycle compiled by Malcolm Bruno)

© Peter Grahame Woolf