IVES Symphonies Nos 1 & 2
There are masses of CDs covering all four Ives symphonies and plenty of LPs before that. For the Second Symphony we can go back to that exhilarating premiere in 1951, nearly 50 years after Ives wrote it, when Bernstein memorably claimed Ives as ‘our Mark Twain, Emerson and Lincoln all rolled into one’. The sound quality of that recording (Sony, 9/74) is understandably a hindrance and the critical edition of the score came later with Kenneth Schermerhorn and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in 2000 (Naxos, 3/01). The recordings of all four symphonies with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton (Hyperion, 11/06) have been widely and justifiably praised. The Melbourne ensemble under Sir Andrew Davis come out well in this competition. The plethora of quotations, all turned into striking symphonic material, makes its impact in a finely controlled continuity in this performance.
The First Symphony – another 50-year delay before the premiere in 1953 – is less distinctive, as might be expected from a student work used initially as a graduation exercise. In the background there’s Dvořák’s New World – Ives had the nerve to start his slow movement with a cor anglais solo – and plenty of Tchaikovsky too, but a catchy opening theme in the first movement, which later became a song, ‘Rough Wind’. Michael Tilson Thomas and the Chicago Symphony recorded it impressively (Sony, 2/91), as the first use of the critical edition. The Melbourne performers rate highly and anyone wanting the first two symphonies together encapsulating early Ives can hardly do better; decently recorded too.