Friday, October 21, 2011

The Third Symphony of Charles Ives

My experience in Danbury back weekend sent me back to my CDs of Charles Ives’s Third Symphony this week. It turns out I have accumulated more recordings of the work in the past few years than I realized — six in all, to wit:

Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbruecken, Michael Stern, cond. (Col legno 20225)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, no conductor (DGG 439 869-2)
Northern Sinfonia, James Sinclair (Naxos 8.5559087)
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner (Decca 289 466 745-2)
Concertgebouw Orch., Michael Tilson Thomas (CBS Masterworks MK37823)
New Philharmonia Orch., Harold Farberman (Everyman 08 6154 71)

I’ve listened to them all in the past few days, and the winner is — well, I must confess I prefer the larger ensembles. Tilson Thomas has the greatest sensitivity to line, Marriner gets a beautiful tone out of the Academy musicians, and Farberman draws the most organlike feeling from the New Philharmonia, which to me is a plus, since the symphony is derived from earlier organ pieces. Farberman’s recording is also the only one that does not use the so-called shadow lines or the optional chimes at the close. I don’t miss either. I also like his slower tempos, esp. in the central “Children’s Day” movement. These three were my favorites, this time around.

The others are fine, too, in their ways, but the smaller groups — the Orpheus and the Northern Sinfonia — sound somewhat shrill at the climaxes, and perhaps Stern’s pacing isn’t as smooth as it could be.

Ives scholarship seems to be perpetually in flux, and, the dates of the symphony change, depending on which liner notes you read. The older CDs say the piece was “assembled” in 1904 and revised in 1909. The later recordings say it was written between 1908 and 1911. Take your choice.

Regardless of the forces used, it’s a beautiful piece. It’s not necessary to identify all of the borrowed hymn tunes to appreciate the music, and, indeed, I’ve been listening to the piece for decades without making the effort, but thanks to Nancy Sudik’s tutelage, I can now name them all.

On to Three Places in New England.

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