Michael Tilson Thomas has managed the impossible: a totally satisfying overview of...
John Armstrong 2002
Charles Ives, the great American original: innovator, eccentric, and irrepressible humorist whose quirky genius combined the essence of the old ways of American life with a kind of revolutionary modernism.
Ives held up a musical mirror to early 20th century America, and he found an astonishing variety of ways of framing folk songs, hymn tunes, landscapes and social scenes inside a restless, adventurous musical language. As Michael Tilson Thomas puts it in his notes: "Ives's music is gleeful, goofy, ecstatic, and nostalgic, but always in the service of his larger goal, which is like Mahler's: to create a whole musical world."
The essence of Ives can be devilishly difficult to capture at the best of times...but on a single cd? No way! At least, that's what I thought until this disc went into my cd player - and stayed there, for two complete play-throughs; and there have been more since. Michael Tilson Thomas has managed the impossible: a totally satisfying overview of Ives's genius on one sixty-five minute cd. Songs, symphonies, psalms and tone poems - they're all represented, and imaginatively sequenced as an organic whole - only someone who had an intimate knowledge and understanding of Ives could have made it work as well as this.
The concert divides into four sections: Tilson Thomas begins by reflecting Ives's boyhood memories, then his evocations of landscape, works concerning war, and finally religion. So, we start with the craggy, uncompromising fanfares of From the Steeples and the Mountains; that segues into the aching nostalgia of The Things our Fathers Loved (baritone Thomas Hampson with Tilson Thomas at the piano), and the shimmering reflections of The Pond for chorus and orchestra...before the brilliant, humorous patter of Memories - Hampson breathlessly excited in a childs eyes view of a visit to the opera house.
The brazen confidence of The Circus Band leads us into the cd's centrepiece: Three Places in New England. Then comes the unsettling sequence of war songs, with a stroke of programming genius, the transition from Tom Sails Away into the Fugue from Ives's Fourth Symphony; it sounds as though it was always meant to happen like this. Finally, after the trio of religious pieces, the inevitable ending: how could it be anything other than The Unanswered Question?
Hampson is a piece of perfect casting, the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus sound truly inspired, and the recording is superb, capturing the subtlest soundscapes and the brashest explosions of brass with ease, yet with no loss of impact.
Tilson Thomas has given us the essence of Ives, and as he says in the notes: "Ives emerges as an American musical romantic poet". Dont make the mistake of thinking of this as some kind of 'Best of...' compilation; it isn't, and I'm sure was never intended to be. The title is spot on: this is 'An American Journey' - and if you only have room for one Ives cd in your collection...
Andrew McGregor - presenter of CD Review on Radio 3