IVES Three Places in New England. New England Holidays
'Unidiomatic’, I wrote in my notes on first hearing Ludovic Morlot’s interpretation of Three Places in New England (the opening work on this disc), then added: ‘Least idiomatic Ives ever?!’ But as I listened, Morlot’s radical approach began making sense. The stiffly meticulous, pianola-like playing of the ragtime fragments in the second movement of the Orchestral Set No 2 have a satisfying Stravinskian bite, and the astonishing absence of nostalgia in that Set’s third movement – with its extensive quotation of the hymn ‘In the sweet by and by’ – miraculously manages to avoid any hint of sentimentality. Not that the performances are at all cold or expressively stunted; they’re quite eloquent, actually.
What Morlot seems to be doing here – and I have no evidence for this beyond what my ears tell me – is to take the Americana out of Ives’s music in much the same way that Boulez wished to ‘burn the mist’ from Debussy’s. Not every Ivesian will warm to this approach, of course, and it’s not without its flaws. There’s precious little humour in these performances, for instance, and that’s not a minor cavil. The playful barn dances in the Allegro section of ‘Washington’s Birthday’ from the Holidays Symphony (listen at 5'55"), are treated abstractly, as if Ives had used fiddle tunes the way Schoenberg used tone rows. The effect is sonically fantastic, particularly once the Jew’s harp enters and all hell breaks loose, but it’s all very serious.
In a work like ‘Decoration Day’, however, Morlot’s seriousness – his obvious conviction that every note matters – illuminates the visionary in Ives’s music. The main section of the movement is ravishingly played by the Seattle Symphony, and when the raucous march intrudes near the end, it doesn’t scream or swagger; it swells and soars. A sublime moment – one of many on this provocative disc.