Ives/Varèse Orchestral Works

Author: 
Peter Dickinson

Ives/Varèse Orchestral Works

  • Symphony No. 4
  • (The) Unanswered Question
  • Amériques

A new recording of Ives's Symphony No. 4 is always a major event. This brings the number of current CD recordings back up to four again—Farberman, with the New Philharmonia on Vanguard (12/90), has been deleted and so has Serebrier, with the LPO on Chandos (1/86). When I considered all these performances with the arrival of Tilson Thomas and the Chicago SO, I was forced to concede that there could be no definitive version of a work as complex as this, at least in the second and fourth movements. There will simply be differences in balance as a result of choices about what to bring forward when. At that time I found much to admire in both Serebrier and Ozawa, with the Boston SO. I also turned back (nostalgically?) to the first recording of all, made soon after the delayed premiere of this symphony under Stokowski in 1965. If you don't mind the CBS sound of those days this is still as exciting a performance as any and you get the Robert Browning Overture as well.
The new performance is well engineered and intelligently balanced. Stokowski doubled bassoons at the opening of the second movement and we miss that—you can hardly hear them (Ives's fault) and they are marked up. Tilson Thomas justifiably made the solo piano more prominent in this movement, and elsewhere, and Dohnanyi does the same. This means that the quarter-tones in the strings (0'29'' and especially spooky at 10'44'') are clearer than I have heard them before. Again this works well and all the big-time popular tunes from the brass have just the right prominence.
With Dohnanyi the Bachian third movement fugue is properly suave and dignified. As our century wears on it becomes easier to accept different styles within the same work, a lesson Ives taught us long before Schnittke. The finale is the mystical peroration. Again we hear more of the piano than usual—perhaps too much at 0'52'', but fascinating at 1'35''. The entry of the voices, silent since the opening Prelude, is not quite the awe-inspiring, transcendental moment it should be, and is in other performances.
Then yet another recording of The Unanswered Question is a bonus. The strings enter virtually imperceptibly and the trumpet is distant with echoes. This works beautifully. And Varese's Ameriques as well—spectacularly played. Older recordings, such as Abravanel and the Utah SO on Vanguard, cannot compete with the demonstration quality sound achieved here. Ameriques is an astonishing document from the 1920s, derived from Stravinsky but screwed up to fever pitch and regularly infiltrated by the sound of the sirens, which for so many people symbolize New York City. Not everyone will want both Ives and Varese, but this CD is well worth having for either.'

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