Nos. 1 & 4
Michael Tilson Thomas seems least at home in Ives most conventional orchestral works, the First and Second Symphonies. This recording of the Second Symphony is a big-boned, solid performance. The Concertgebouw sounds as glorious as ever. But Tilson Thomas doesn't quite reach the extraordinarily high standard that he achieves in Ives' subsequent, less traditional works. Both Bernstein and Schermerhorn offer up performances of the Second that are more vital. You might think that we could point to the Dutch orchestra as the culprit for failing to sound idiomatically "American." But you'd be wrong. MTT's Concertgebouw recording of the Third Symphony is excellent. And their recording of the Second Orchestral Set is a searing performance that sounds wholly idiomatic. In fact, these works are coupled on another disc. You should certainly check that one out. But, for the Second, I'd stick with Bernstein and Schermerhorn.
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Ives's Second Symphony, one of his most extended and ambitious works, stands Janus-like between the early orchestral marches, overtures and the First Symphony, all student pieces from his years at Yale University in the early 1890s-intelligent, exuberant studies formed in the late-Romantic idiom in which he was trained-and the radically experimental compositions he began producing in the first decade of this century. As a transitional work, this Symphony, on one hand, shows Ives's easy grasp of late-nineteenth-century symphonic form and orchestrational technique inherited principally from Brahms and his contemporaries, as well as a fluent mastery of contrapuntal writing; on the other, it reveals Ives's first large-scale use of musical quotation as an integral element in formal design. Liberally and prominently spread through all five movements, the mixture of American fiddle tunes (Turkey in the Straw), popular songs (Stephen Foster's Camptown Races and Massa's in de Cold Ground), patriotic airs (Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean; America the Beautiful), bugle calls (Reveille), and hymn tunes (Bringing in the Sheaves; When I Survey the Wondrous Cross; Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing) give the work, of course, its unmistakably American color. But Ives intended his quotations to function on more levels than simply evoking nostalgia for an idyllic past. There are references to other kinds of music as well-motives from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Brahms's First, hints from the Prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.
Having begun the work about 1897, Ives substantially completed it in New York sometime during 1902. He was then twenty-seven and had decided to stop part-time work as an organist to devote his full energy to developing a career in insurance, while reserving composition for evenings and weekends. Parts of the Symphony were not fully scored until 1909, and Ives continued to revise the ending of the final movement. Thereafter, the work remained unperformed and unnoticed until the fall of 1949.
Ives was not present at the premiere, which was given at Carnegie Hall, February 22,1951, by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, but he heard the performance broadcast over the radio on March 4, in Redding, Connecticut, where he lived in retirement.
It was not until after Ives's death in 1954 that his complete manuscripts were fully catalogued and given to Yale University. The availability of further materials made necessary a revised, critical edition of the score, which was commissioned from Malcolm Goldstein by The Charles Ives Society, and was performed and recorded for the first time by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.
Writing in his Memos of 1931-32, Charles Ives looked back on his Symphony No. 3 as "a kind of crossway between the older ways and the newer ways" in the development of his compositional style. A reflection on the religious revival meetings held in the countryside near Danbury, Connecticut, where he spent his childhood, this Symphony is one of Ives's earliest large-scale essays in composing elaborate and subtle contrapuntal fantasies based on American popular songs and hymn tunes. Its movements originated in three now lost organ works composed by him in 1901, his last year as organist at New York City's Central Presbyterian Church. The hymn tunes on which the organ works were based became the principal thematic material for the Symphony-Lowell Mason's Azmon (1839, "Oh for a thousand tongues to sing") and Charles Converse's Erie (1868, "What a friend we have in Jesus") in the first movement; Mason's Fountain (1830, "There is a fountain filled with blood") and Andrew Young's Happy Land (1838, "There is a happy land") in the second movement; and William Bradbury's Woodworth (1834, "Just as 1 am without one Plea") in the last movement.
Begun in 1902, Symphony No. 3 was finished in 1904, then further revised in 1909, but waited until 1946 for its first performance in a concert arranged and conducted by Lou Harrison with the Little Symphony of New York in Carnegie Chamber Music Hall. The following year Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the work, and Harrison supervised the first publication of the score (reproduced from a fair copy made specially for the first performance) since Ives's failing eyesight prevented him from active collaboration. When the work was assigned to Associated Music Publishers some years later, Henry Cowell was engaged to produce a corrected edition, published in 1964. Neither Harrison, Cowell, nor any of Ives's copyists had access to the full range of manuscript materials now assembled and catalogued in the Ives Collection at Yale. With the formation of the Charles Ives Society in 1974, whose function has been to produce critical editions of the composer's works, it became feasible to prepare definitive editions based on all extant sources. Symphony No. 3 was edited by Kenneth Singleton.
Paul C. Echols