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Charles IVES: Three Places in New England; Orchestral Set No. 2; New England Holidays – Seattle Symph./Ludovic Morlot – Seattle Symphony Media

Charles IVES: Three Places in New England; Orchestral Set No. 2; New England Holidays – Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot – Seattle Symphony Media SSM1015 (6/02/2017) 78:08 ****:

Fresh readings of this American iconclast’s well-known music.

Charles Ives, the insurance man and amateur musician turned revolutionary composer remains an “American original” whose music concert goers either greatly enjoy or not so much. He would probably have it no other way. Ives was, by all accounts, someone in love with the sights and sounds of his country but who was also deeply amused by the cliché of tradition and by what he considered the boredom of traditional concert hall music and a disdain for what—in the early third of the twentieth century—was a form of contemporary composition that Ives found, basically ‘too European.’

So, he became very well known for taking the sights and sounds of very idiomatic American, ‘New England’ holidays and park bands and festivals and creating his own absolutely unique sound. Both Ives and his father were in the park band scene and Charles grew up participating in church music as well. With Ives there was no formal book for harmony and invention. He used texture, orchestration, dissonance and consonance and even snippets of quoted material to paint pictures with sound.

This album, with the continuously impressive Seattle Symphony, holds three of Ives’ best known works. Three Places in New England, is written in three movements; with a poignant nod to our military history. The “St. Gaudens in Boston Common” (‘Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment’) is a depiction of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw & the Massachusetts 54th Regiment of the Civil War. “Putnam’s Camp” depicts a boy enjoying a Fourth of July picnic at a former Revolutionary War campground and is expectedly more raucous than the somber “St. Gaudens”. The third ‘place’ is “The Housatonic at Stockbridge”, a dreamlike depiction of a riverside walk and time spent with his wife, Harmony.

The 2nd Orchestral Set is similarly an homage to historical and cultural locations and written with the same surreal blend of traditional and wildly atonal bursts. What is most interesting is the last movement, “From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose,” written about the sinking of the Lusitania by German submarines on May 7, 1915. The music is very complex and includes a very important choral section that includes tolling bells and repeated choruses of “The Sweet Bye and Bye” which get gradually but ultimately drowned out by discord and fading into a nearly direction-less quiet closing.

The four New England holidays represented in the suite entitled The Holidays are Washington’s Birthday, Decoration Day, The Fourth of July and Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day. Ives’ approach and style to this work is, similarly, a pastiche of references to existing hymns, martial tunes and patriotic melodies and wild bursts of atonality and color.

For their uniqueness and characteristically American nature, Ives’ works have been recorded frequently and his music still represents a singular vision and appeal. The Ives’ set which Ludovic Lorlot and Seattle are producing on their own masterfully engineered label represents a bold, vivid and sonically rewarding vision and are among the most interesting new recordings to come out these past several months. Highly recommended!

—Daniel Coombs

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