IVES:  Symphony No. 3 "The Camp Meeting."  Washington's Birthday.  Two Contemplations.  "Country Band" March.  Overture and March "1776."
Northern Sinfonia/James Sinclair, cond.
NAXOS 8.559087 (B) (DDD) TT:  51:31

Charles Ives's Second Symphony, which kicked off the Naxos "American Classics" series, is a prime exemplar of the composer's "kitchen-sink" use of folksong borrowings. The Third Symphony, which Ives assembled from three of his own organ pieces, plays to altogether different aesthetic effect. Its three broadly lyrical movements—hymn-based, according to the notes, although I donít hear the suggested "O, for a thousand tongues" in the first movement—contrasts its themes against more lilting, buoyant passages, while mildly dissonant harmonies evoke a bittersweet nostalgia. The point of the occasional rhythmic irregularity is not spiky aggression, but the creation of a fluid lyricism that negates the regular barline. The result is one of Ives's most accessible pieces in any format. Where Leonard Bernstein, a leader of the 1960s Ives revival, was apt self-consciously to underline the music's "innovations"—the peculiar sounds and metrical fluctuations—the American conductor James Sinclair takes a different tack, drawing sweet, vibrant playing in the cantabiles, animating the livelier bits with sprightly articulations. The second movement opening exemplifies his attention to phrasing: the chugging accompaniment doesn't prepare the listener (or the performers!) for the ambiguous scansion of the violin theme, but Sinclair shapes it firmly and purposefully in a long line. Iím not sure why Naxos needed to send him to England, rather than using an American orchestra as in the seriesí previous installments, but the Northern Sinfonia's playing is alert and responsive, with particularly sensitive woodwind soli. Only in a few places—the sweeping rise at 5:53 of the first movement, or the intended expansion at 3:54 of the third—do the chamber-proportioned strings sound a bit understaffed for the music.

Devoted Ivesians will undoubtedly find the rest of the program more valuable than I. The players certainly sound comfortable and expressive in this inoffensive, impressionistic performance of Washington's Birthday. The Two Contemplations are more familiar under their individual names. The first, The Unanswered Question, immediately mesmerizes with its spacious, open string textures, over which the solo trumpet calls plangently, while the woodwinds' gently dissonant chords later on suggest an organ mixture. The second, Central Park in the Dark, is one of those "collage" pieces that makes no more sense to me now than it did thirty years ago, and registers as an extended if mercifully quiet annoyance. Both Country Band and the slow march 1776 would eventually find a permanent home in the ďPutnamís CampĒ movement of Three Places in New England. They have their fetching moments, but the composer indulges in the kind of wrong-note humor that eludes me—as with Mozartís Musical Joke, you either like this sort of thing or you donít. This is one of Naxos's best recent recordings. Just enough ambient warmth enhances the clear acoustic, without any of the hard tone of, say, the Ives and Creston recordings that launched the American Classics series.

S.F.V. (August 2003)