Ives Orchestral Works
This wonderful symphony begins sounding for all the world as though it longs to be Brahms's Second or Dvorak's Eighth. The old European traditions roll out in well-nourished strings and text-book counterpoints; here and there a hint of New England rural is tempered with a little Johann Sebastian; but only when ''Columbia, Gem of the Ocean'' pops up in the horns do we know we are well and truly in Ives country. Bernstein makes a point of playing it like Brahms, with bows richly drawn in appreciation—a thanksgiving hymn from old America. He conducted the scandalously belated premiere back in 1951 (50 years after its composition) and is known to love it more than any other American symphony. That much is plain.
This, Bernstein's second recording, is as generous and raunchy as ever, the detailing never sharper or more lovingly attended, the surprises sounding as though he and he alone is springing them for the first time. As pert woodwinds abruptly change the subject jolting us without ceremony into the second movement, the rush of adrenalin is almost palpable. From this moment onwards, ''everything comes out Ivesian'' (as Bernstein himself once put it)—the clash of old and new, formal and informal, classical and vernacular, is at once irreverent and respectful, the music changing tack as often and as unexpectedly as an over-excited child. ''Bringing in the Sheaves'' is prominent among a number of 'half-heard' or 'half-remembered' tunes but the real joy of the movement is the simplest idea of all—a little ritornello (2'14'') in oboes against genteel cellos which, in Bernstein's hands, is the fondest of memories, a recurring echo of times past. To some extent it mirrors the finale's haunting second subject, one of Ives's loveliest lyric creations—an old fireside tune in dreamy solo horn garnished with folksy fiddle which calls to mind Stephen Foster as readily as Dvorak's
Bernstein's New Yorkers don't toy with this music—they really play it. Just listen to their athleticism in the closing pages of the second movement as excitable strings bustle us by the church where a hymn is now in full cry with off-key descant ringing out uninhibitedly in the upper woodwinds; or the glorious slow movement—itself a deeply-felt hymnal with its organ-like string sonorities. The trick is to make those kinks in the harmony and slips in the counterpoint sound utterly and completely natural—and, dare I say it, sincere. Nowhere must parody be implied. Ives means it when he introduces ''America the Beautiful'' in the closing bars: so does Bernstein. Needless to say, his audacity is irresistible as the finale's marching bands sound the American hooray. One is tempted to join in with the coda as trombones blast their way through ''Columbia'' one last time, and Bernstein really makes capital of that wicked pay-off chord where Ives throws in the entire chromatic scale, squashing the proceedings like the infamous Monty Python foot.
All but two of the fill-ups have rarity value. The Gong on the Hook and Ladder (or
Quite a hamper, then: an estimable act of homage from one great American to another. DG have miked the proceedings tight and close with the multifarious winds lines thrown into especially sharp relief; I see the necessity. Ives was nothing if not optimistic about what might or might not be heard; he needs a little mixing-desk sorcery. Somewhat synthetic, then, but exciting. Now the other symphonies, please.'