Ives American Journey (An)
It’s hard to talk about Ives. It’s harder to explain him‚ impossible to categorise him‚ foolish to analyse him. Best just to listen‚ to see the sights‚ hear the sounds‚ dream the dreams‚ relive the memories‚ make the journey. And this is quite some journey. It lasts 65 minutes and one lifetime.
If anyone has a hotline to the cortex of Ives’s imagination‚ it is Michael Tilson Thomas. The programme he has devised here is not so much a journey‚ more a stream of consciousness through the hinterlands of Ives Americana. An alternative American dream. It’s about the things that mattered to Ives: the times‚ places‚ events that fashioned the nation and enabled it to find its own way. It’s a landscape of ballad songs and snatches‚ of hymns‚ marches‚ tall tales and short orders‚ assembled exactly as the man remembered them and entirely in keeping with the chaotic comedy of life. But above all‚ it’s about the spirit within us all – great and small.
So MTT starts by having us go tell it on the mountain. From the Steeples and the Mountains is classic Ives: a visionary statement fashioned from bare essentials‚ bells and brass dissonances always just a whisper away from a recognisable hymn tune. Then from the mountains to the back yard – recollections of a very American childhood. Picket fences and parlour songs. Like The Things Our Fathers Loved written 16 years after the craggy bell and brass piece. You can be sure the Ives chronology will constantly wrongfoot you. Thomas Hampson is the man entrusted with these rich pickings from the Ives songbook. He lustily makes a drama out of a crisis in Charlie Rutlage‚ a cowboy song turned operatic gran scena. ‘Another good cowpuncher has gone to meet his fate‚’ drawls Hampson in his very best‚ flat‚ tellitlikeitis‚ downatheel manner. Later he’s the Salvation Army’s General William Booth banging the drum for all his pimps‚ floosies‚ and drunks – his ‘saved souls’ – as he leads them towards that great courthouse in the sky. That’s Ives the oldfashioned Yankee Protestant in action evoking the frenzy of revivalism. And where there’s religion‚ there’s war. Flanders Fields reeks of Mahler’s spooky Wunderhorn militarism in this atmospheric orchestration by David Del Tredici. An illwind (literally) blows through the postlude suggesting a field of poppies swaying ‘in memoriam’. Then one of the most heartfelt of all Ives songs‚ Tom Sails Away – a life in a song from cradle to grave. The metaphor could hardly be simpler: ‘Scenes from childhood are floating before my eyes’. Columbia‚ Gem of the Ocean sounds a hollow note of nationalism‚ but it’s Tom‚ the boy next door‚ we mourn as bang on cue Tilson Thomas offers what might be regarded as an elegy for him and all who sailed with him: that gentle fugue in C major from the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony. Wholesome churchy harmonies momentarily curdled towards the close as a solo clarinet lends its voice to some ‘homespun’ counterpoint.
Such juxtapositions as I’ve outlined above make this alllive compilation especially affecting. Things start to make more sense when you can hear them in some kind of context. To go‚ for instance‚ straight from The Circus Band (in the version with chorus – an absolute knockout) into Three Places in New England makes capital of the way in which Ives recalls and recalls again his favourite bits of Americana. The bridge passage of Circus Band repeatedly kickstarts the rampage‚ the pandemonium that is ‘Putnam’s Camp’‚ the second of the ‘three places’. Hard to believe that this is a live recording‚ so astonishingly lucid and transparent is the multilayered orchestral sound. Tremendous impact‚ too.
Finally‚ then‚ a beautiful performance of that little masterpiece The Unanswered Question‚ as close as we get to an understanding of what spirituality actually meant to Ives. Tranquility‚ curiosity‚ a heightened sense of awareness. Question asked and answered‚ I think.