IVES: Orchestral Set No. 1 - Three Places in New England (Version 1; ed. Sinclair). Orchestral Set No. 2. Orchestral Set No. 3 (ed. Porter; 3rd mvmt. realized by Josephson).
Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus/James Sinclair.
Naxos 8.559353 (B) (DDD) TT: 62:36

Hurrah, boys, hurrah! Naxos has announced a project to record all of Ives's orchestral music with the help of conductor and Ives scholar James Sinclair. As the French say, bon chance. Because he didn't depend on music to make a living and because for the first thirty or so years of his composing life his music remained unperformed, Ives rarely finished a work. He became a dedicated reviser. Not only do entire pieces have several versions, but passages within works do as well. According to some musicians who worked with him (Kirkpatrick and Cowell spring to mind), Ives seemed to give the performer license to choose from a number of options and consequently spawned a scholarly cottage industry for decades down the road.

Ives's characteristic form is the "set." A set collects pieces that usually have been written independently. Ives groups them in a way that creates a spiritual program. Different types of sets use different types of forces. The program here collects the three sets for orchestra.

Naxos's series has already produced interesting results with the publication of this disc. The first set, best known as Three Places in New England, is recorded for the first time in its original version. Its later revision constitutes a genuine Ives "hit" (even Eugene Ormandy, a conductor who doesn't immediately spring to mind as a champion of radical music, recorded it), and indeed it was one of the earliest Ives works to receive a professional performance. I've loved it for over forty years. Like its two siblings, the movements succeed one another in a slow-fast-slow pattern. The first movement -- "Impression of the 'St. Gaudens' in Boston Common" -- commemorates Col. Robert Gould Shaw and his all-Black 54th Massachusetts regiment, who fought and died in the battle of Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Shaw and his soldiers were so despised that the Confederate army dumped the entire regimental dead, including Shaw himself, into an unmarked mass grave. Ives depicts a gray, misty day in Boston Common. As the monument (by August St. Gaudens and Stanford White) emerges from the gloom, the observer begins to think of the Civil War and "the last full measure of devotion," as two of Ives's favorite tunes, "Battle Cry of Freedom" and "Old Black Joe," looms from the orchestral haze. The second movement -- "Children's Holiday at Putnam's Camp" -- captures a Fourth of July celebration through a bubbling pot of mainly borrowed tunes, apparently played by an amateur band that keeps losing its place: Ives's own Country Band March, "Yankee Doodle," "Battle Cry of Freedom," "Taps," "The British Grenadier," "Marching Through Georgia," "The Girl I Left Behind Me," "Hail Columbia," and "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean." A reflective middle section interrupts the hoopla, but the merrymaking breaks out again. The finale, "The Housatonic at Stockbridge," is one of Ives's "transcendental" nature pieces, inspired by a poem by Robert Underwood Johnson which depicts a quiet New England river winding out to sea, a metaphor since at least Tennyson for spiritual journey. Ives based the music on his song of the poem, a paraphrase on Woodbury's hymn-tune Dormance.

Sinclair's using the first version of the set shocks me a bit -- I've heard the later version for so many years that it took me a little time to get used to the original. Not that it's more difficult music. If anything, it sounds much more coherent at first. For one thing, the main rhythmic pulse is far more prominent. Two different sets of barlines aren't fighting it out, as they do in the revision. I happen to prefer the revision. That kind of "realistic," slightly-off simultaneity belongs to my deepest ideas of Ives, but your mileage may vary. For what it's worth, my favorite recordings of the first two orchestral sets come from Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra on London/Decca 466745, a double-decker which includes all four symphonies as well (conducted by Mehta, Marriner, and Dohnányi).

The second orchestral set is performed in its usual version, so comparisons to other recordings become more valid. It opens with a beautiful hymn-like passage. As far as I know, the theme originates with Ives, although "Nearer, My God, to Thee" keeps peeking out here and there. Ives at one point called it an "Elegy to Stephen Foster" before settling on the title "An Elegy to our Forefathers." The movement lifts something that could degenerate to sentimentality into genuine nobility, an expression of Ives's view of the sentimental. Rather than despise it, as most of us tend to do, he views it as one aspect of the sublime, seen "through a glass, darkly." The movement becomes a potpourri or evocation of Victorian hymns. Second movement brings to mind ragtime and revivalist rousers like "Bringing in the Sheaves" and ends in a haze of reminiscence. The last movement opens with a bit of reportage -- something that occurs in Ives's music fairly frequently. Ives was waiting for a train when news of the Lusitania broke. The people on the railway platform spontaneously broke into the hymn "In the Sweet By and By." Ives begins with the musical fact -- a small chorus quietly sings the hymn -- and then moves to a meditation, as if the soul collectively groped toward wisdom and truth. Finally, the music climaxes triumphantly on "In the Sweet By and By." Sinclair's is one of the more coherent and clear accounts of the set, but to me he comes up a bit short on the poetry. I prefer Dohnányi and the Cleveland.

The Orchestral Set #3 is a bit of an illusion, as far as I'm concerned. Ives essentially shut down as a composer rather dramatically in 1927, when he announced to his wife, "I can't do it any more. Nothing sounds right to me." The Third Set was one of those pieces he was working on. The first movement is fairly complete. The two later movements get progressively sketchier, although Ives was to continue to pick at them until he died. The third movement especially consists of scraps. As far as I'm concerned, the piece sounds less interesting as it continues, with an outstanding first movement (the one Ives nearly completed), a fine second, and a pale third. The first movement is another of those Ivesian spiritual pilgrimages. On the other hand, the third movement sounds like someone trying to imitate Ives. It reminds me of reading a textbook on the composer. All the boxes under "Ives's Style" have been checked off, but the music lacks surprise. To those who've said, "My kid banging on the piano could do as well" -- no, he can't.

Sinclair and the Swedes do very well. As I said, Sinclair has found the narrative thread of these works -- always difficult to do in Ives. The textures are very clear, so you can hear all the simultaneous planes of different musical activity. He achieves a fair amount of poetry, although Dohnányi, as I've said, gets more and the level of Cleveland's playing soars above the Swedes, as good as they may be. Incidentally, not every reviewer agrees with me on this one. Nevertheless, this is one real bargain and one of the best in Naxos's American series.

S.G.S. (December 2008)