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Ives & Varese

IVES: Orchestral Music
(Decoration Day, Fourth Of July, Thanksgiving & Forefathers' Day, The General Slocum etc)
Malmo Chamber Choir & Symphony Orchestra/ James Sinclair

Naxos 8.559370 [TT: 53 mins]

Here is a tempting compilation of some of Ives' most attractive music, including two small premiere recordings. Three movements of the New England Holidays Symphony are interspersed with other works ranging from a Wagnerian student Overture to a two-minute depiction of a college football game. Deeply moving is the depiction of a boating disaster in which an devastating explosion caused the loss of more than a thousand lives.

These sound to be authoritative performances and Sinclair is an Ives scholar of note, working his way through the orchestral music for a projected eight disc edition. On this showing, and that reviewed below, they will be well worth collecting; to complete the Holidays Symphony you'll need Washington's Birthday, coupled with the Third Syphony on Naxos 8.559087; no great hardship...

IVES: Orchestral Sets Nos. 1-3
(Three Places in New England etc)

Malmo Chamber Choir & Symphony Orchestra/ James Sinclair

Naxos 8.559353 [TT: 63:32]

This is a first complete recorded performance of these three 'Orchestral Sets', Charles Ives' term for a larger work made by putting together independently-written smaller pieces as a ‘set’. The First Orchestral Set was assembled around 1913-14 from older material, each movement with an underlying program. Like the other sets, the Second has a slow-fast-slow pattern and a visionary hymn-based finale. The unfinished Third Orchestral Set was edited and realised by David Gray Porter and Nors Josepson. This is its first complete performance and recording. Full details and track list at http://www.naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=8.559353

Taken as a whole the CD is a rich brew of Ives' unshrinking individuality and universality. They combine, often in simultaneous juxtaposition, elements that range from the comic to the spiritual. Bands may walk and their musics clash; hymn tunes are rarely far away. It is wonderful stuff, and listening straight through for an hour is a heartening experience, especially so just after hearing the complacent escapism of Engish music of the time (q.v. a recital yesterday of Bax, Bridge and York Bowen). Inspiriting.

Varese Orchestral Works 2

Ameriques / Equatorial / Nocturnal / Ionisation

Naxos 8.557882 [TT: 67:14]

And that applies even more to the Varese disc received in the same batch. One would think that he arose, fully armed and iconoclastic, but for the inclusion of the sole early work which was neither destroyed in a warehouse fire nor destroyed by the composer himself. There should be a law to make the destruction of juvenalia a crime. Elizabeth Watts sings Un grand sommeil noir accompanied by Christopher Lyndon-Gee at the piano and she takes part in Nocturnal, with bass voices intoning nonsense syllables, the score completed by Varese's amenuensis Chou Wen-Chung.

There is a work new to me, indeed one which I envisaged decades ago but never pursued, Tuning Up (1947) for the NYO & Stokowski, rejected in rehearsal by the orchestra (they stormed out of rehearsal and Varese returned his large fee). It was premature in the climate of the time, but would wow a Proms audience now...

Most important amongst this splendid miscellany is the original version of Amériques (c.1915-21; edtd. Wen-Chung) for a massive orchestra of 155 players with about 15 percussionists, recorded at a rare revival in Warsaw by the British composer/conductor Christopher Lyndon-Gee, who I had not 'registered' before. How did he persuade the financiers of the Warsaw Autumn Festival to revert to the original instead of Stokowski's truncated 1927 reduction?

Lyndon-Gee is clearly a formidable musicologist too. His 10-page double columned essay (small print, but dense black on white makes it legible) has the makings of a section of a book to come; rather as do e.g. Harry Halbreich's CD notes on Scelsi... It is bizarre that nowadays it is easier to finance and produce a recording than to achieve a neccessary book... To put this one in some sort of a perspecitve, for 500 pennies, you are acquiring the services of some 160+ musicians and their supporting teams.

These Ives/Varese CDs go very well in parallel. And for re-hearing them in limited available time, it has been salutary to do so on iPod whilst going about one's daily business. The marching bands of Ives and the urban sounds of Varese make a fine amalgam with those that impinge on awareness in a London bus...

Three great discs; buy them both without a moment's hesitation and you'll catch up with how music was going on across the Ocean, whilst England languished in nostalgia.

Peter Grahame Woolf