IVES Orchestral Set No 2. Symphonies Nos 3 & 4
The first instalment of Andrew Davis’s Ives series (5/15), which included the First and Second Symphonies, was generally well received but with a caveat: there is enjoyable music in both works, and some signs in the Second Symphony of what was to come, but neither really tests an orchestra and its leader like the bristling Third Symphony and the sonically sprawling Fourth. There has also been a bit of an Ives boom recently, with fine recordings from Seattle with Ludovic Morlot and, going back a bit further, from Dallas with Andrew Litton.
After a volume of shorter orchestra works (2/16), we have now have the third instalment, and ample proof that Davis is undaunted by the glorious confusion Ives sought to capture in these later works. There is an occasional coolness to his conducting, but this music wants a bit of cooling off now and then. In Morlot’s reading of the Fourth Symphony, the piano growls and barks and thunders throughout the thick, Impressionistic textures, while Davis integrates it more elegantly into the fabric. Fortissimos from the Melbourne players are big but not quite as explosive as from other ensembles. And that turns out to be a winning strategy. The Fourth Symphony can be as maddening, dramatically, as the New England landscape is frustrating topographically: one doesn’t always see the larger picture, and only upon ascending a peak do you realise that there is another, taller one right behind it.
Davis clarifies that, especially in the second movement of the last symphony, a grand ‘comedy’ in a dark, ironic vein, which is given an order and drama that it rarely has when the focus is only on building up its layers of densely quilted chaos. The music manages to be existentially engulfing yet relatively chaste and manageable at the same time.
The string sound from Melbourne is appropriately rich, and from time to time it is applied with a nice, almost Brahmsian sheen – Ives, for all his experiments, never turned away from his 19th-century orchestral roots. The chorus also produce lovely sounds in the Fourth Symphony and Orchestral Set No 2, which opens the disc, and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet deftly negotiates the challenging piano part in the Fourth Symphony. American listeners may blanch at the thought of an English conductor producing such estimable Ives with an Australian orchestra – but better to be flattered at the lasting international triumph of this music on a grand scale, something Ives might have coveted but could not possibly have imagined.