IVES:  From the Steeples and the Mountains.  The Things Our Fathers Loved.  The Pond (Remembrance).  Memories.  Charlie Rutlage.  The Circus Band.  Three Places in New England.  In Flanders Fields.  They are There!  Tom Sails Away.  Symphony No. 4--III: Fugue.  Psalm 100.  Serenity.  General William Booth Enters into Heaven.  The Unanswered Question
Glen Fischthal, trumpet;  Thomas Hampson, baritone; San Francisco Girls Chorus; San Francisco Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Michael Tilson Thomas, cond.

BMG/RCA 63703 (F) (DDD) TT:  64:49
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MTT, as San Franciscans call him, has been recording Ives for more than 30 years, starting with Three Places in New England as associate conductor of the Boston Symphony, which DGG recently reissued on a remastered CD (see Review). Here it is again, but with a difference: MTT has added a chorus to"The Housatonic at Stockbridge" using a secular text by Robert Underwood Johnson instead of a hymn to be played as if from a distance by the strings. Not only superfluous, that chorus shatters the calm of Charlie and Harmony Ives' Sunday walk by the the riverside. Otherwise, very little seems to have changed in three decades, except that the Boston Symphony was a more sonorous and seasoned orchestra than the estimable SFSO of Y2K (despite travail in the wake of Serge Koussevitzky's 1949 forced resignation, which Erich Leinsdorf only partially remedied after 14 years of erratic Charles Munch). There's plenty else, though, of distinction and merit on RCA/BMG's new issue, recorded live between September 30 and October 3, 1999, by a German team in a hall that's problematic even when empty.

From the Steeples and the Mountains, and later on the fugue movement from Symphony No. 4 are distinguished. But so were MTT's Amsterdam and Chicago performances on Sony of all five Ives symphonies (including Holidays), still listed in the last published issue of Schwann/Opus more than a year ago. They deserve remastering and repackaging as a 3-CD midprice package, including the Chicago Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question with trumpet virtuoso Adolph Herseth in his prime. Here the latter work features Glenn Fischthal, who plays well but offmike, perhaps offstage, which is not I think what Ives intended. Both SF choruses sing enthusiastically, but a kindlier acoustic might have produced a less edgy sound. For comparison, listen (if a copy can be found) to Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony on an RCA CD, recorded just eight years earlier, in the same Three Places and Unaswered Question, along with Symphony No. 3 and two droll, short pieces of Ivesiana. The late, brilliant Joanna Nickrenz produced it with the orchestra's in-house engineer, William Hoekstra. Or listen to superb readings by Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra of Three Places, Orchestral Set No. 2 (with chorus), Man and Mountains and Sun-treader by Carl Ruggles, plus Ruth Crawford (Seeger)'s eloquent Andante for Strings, co-produced in 1993-94 by Michael Woolcock and Paul Myers with a quartet of engineers. It is still, I believe, in the Musical Heritage catalog (leased from Decca), and comes very close to saying the last word collectively on all of these pieces.

RCA/BMG's notes by MMT himself and Jan Swafford are abbreviated and superficial although the texts of eight songs, superbly sung by Thomas Hampson "on loan from EMI," are printed in full (along with the "Housatonic" addendum). Whether Hampson's class act will sell the set, assuming too much material hasn't been duplicated, is up to the individual buyer. Let me, though, make a last observation about The Unanswered Question, the “coda” on one of Leonard Bernstein's last CDs with the NYPhil, recorded by DGG in 1987-88, featuring Symphony No. 2, The Fireman's Parade, Tone Roads No. 1, Hymn for strings, and Central Park. As eccentric as some of Lenny-B's later performances became, he got every one of these Ives pieces absolutely right. Not even "Bud" Herseth's Question-soothing trumpet sounded more eloquent. Better yet, Hans Weber's production made Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center sound almost like - well, close enough to -- Symphony Hall in Boston.

R.D. (May 2002)