IVES:  Three Places in New England.  RUGGLES:  Sun-Treader.  PISTON:  Symphony No. 2
Boston Symphony Orch/Michael Tilson Thomas, cond.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 463 633 (M) (ADD) TT:  61:48
 

When these performances first appeared 30 years ago, Michael Tilson Thomas was the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 25-year-old assistant conductor. Like Leonard Bernstein in 1943, he was thrust into the limelight by the illness of an elder—in MTT's case William Steinberg, who briefly succeeded Erich Leinsdorf as music director in 1969. Boston's contract with D.G.G. was new at the time: RCA Victor had recorded the orchestra for more than half a century.

This "Originals" reissue adds the Piston symphony (coupled at the time with William Schuman's Violin Concerto) to the 1970 pairing of Ives and Ruggles. Reviews at the time were prevailingly laudatory, which this disc corroborates, using "Original-Image Bit-Processing" for "added presence and brilliance, greater spatial definition." Its contents, however, have aged—not Piston's polite music as much as Ives' trail-blazing Three Places in New England and Ruggles' rugged masterwork, Sun-treader.'

Ives' dissonances and raucousness sound downplayed here, softened and smoothed, although "Original-Image Bit-Processing" may have sacrificed sonic wallop for "greater spatial definition" - I haven't the original around for comparison. MTT (as San Franciscans call him now) recorded a suitably grittier performance of Sun-treader for CBS with the Buffalo Symphony, where he became music director when Seiji Ozawa succeeded Steinberg in Boston. In fact, MTT recorded all of Ruggles' music on two SDs that damn well deserve to be remastered and reissued by Sony.

Piston's Parisian neo-Classicism from 1943 has remained his most popular symphony (despite the current partial-eclipse of his music). And MTT's performance has an almost balletic lightness of touch, plus some fragrant lyricism in the Adagio. But Gerard Schwarz's slightly brisker Seattle Symphony version on Delos has more heft, resoundingly recorded, and a marginally more heartfelt Adagio, with the Sixth Symphony of 1955 and the1941 Sinfonietta as disc-mates.

Concerning Ives and Ruggles, however, this reissue is superfluous. London has given us powerful performances of Three Places in New England and Sun-treader by Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra. Their essential CD furthermore includes Ives' Orchestral Set No. 2, Ruggles' Men and Mountains, and the astonishing Ruth Crawford (Seeger's) Andante for Strings. Should you crave Piston, Delos offers the better bargain quantitatively.

R.D.(May 2001)