Ives: Concord Symphony, Copland: Organ Symphony Hybrid SACD
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Ives/Brant: A Concord Symphony - Copland: Organ Symphony
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Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony follow their recently completed Mahler cycle with a series of new live recordings, including the Henry Brant arrangement of Ives' Concord Symphony uniquely paired with Copland's Organ Symphony featuring Paul Jacobs. Following the recent completion of their award-winning and ground-breaking Mahler recording project, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony will continue to bolster their discography with recordings from both the core classical repertoire as well as works new to or rarely heard by audiences. The new recordings reflect the broad range of programming that has been a hallmark of the 15-year MTT/SFS partnership. The new releases, recorded live in concert in the orchestra's home Davies Symphony Hall, will be available as Hybrid SACDs. The first of these new releases includes Ives' Concord Symphony arranged by Pulitzer-prize winning composer Henry Brant, uniquely paired with Copland's Organ Symphony featuring Paul Jacobs. Personnel: Paul Jacobs (organ), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)
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Copland’s Symphony may not be typical of his mature style but is no lightweight piece. It is not a quasi-organ concerto because the instrument largely is used to provide colour to the orchestra rather than act in a virtuoso role.
It could be argued that Ives wrote the greatest American sonata when he composed the Concord Sonata. You could equally argue that he wrote the greatest American Symphony - his Fourth - even if Copland’s Third is the more popular. Brant’s orchestration of the Sonata has provided serious competition for the Fourth Symphony, being a densely packed, philosophically fervent and transcendental late romantic work.
Brant’s orchestration doesn’t sound entirely authentically Ivesian but for the most part this only helps. The more exuberant parts of Hawthorn even take on a jazzy feel at times that sounds nothing like Ives but is in the spirit of the music. This more airy modern orchestration is generally preferable to what might have sounded rather clogged up in shades of brown had Ives orchestrated it himself – orchestration wasn’t one of his strongest skills.
The other issue is the order of the movements: taking the same order as the sonata works less well here because although Emerson is a slow movement, when orchestrated, it sounds particularly dense and busy. When immediately followed by the excitement of Hawthorn you’re left rather drained for the two quieter movements that conclude the work. Swapping Hawthorn and Alcott around seems to balance the symphony better.
These are very minor gripes because this comes across as an immense late romantic / modernist outpouring: among the finest things Ives ever produced. This recording is tremendously exciting and although not the premier of Brant’s version it is a very important addition to the Ives discography. For Ives enthusiasts this is essential listening whilst providing a treat for Copland fans too.
When unleashed for orchestra, the Concord Sonata (or Symphony) takes on a new life. As I said in my above review of the Dennis Russell Davies recording, "these are more accurately two completely different works rather one being simply a transcription of the other." Michael Tilson Thomas has developed a "sound" with his San Francisco Symphony orchestra, a group of musicians he has been working with regularly for more than 15 years, and with whom he has performed many 20th century works. There is a certain naturalness in this recording, as though the orchestra is in its milieu, and a balance among the instruments that sounds nearly ideal. When the orchestra lets loose in the middle of the Hawthorne section - with blaring horns, punctuated by soft strings, then back to a cacophony of horns, then a marching band imploding - I just want to turn the volume up and be overwhelmed by the waves of sound.
The sound quality of this disc is excellent. The orchestra is spacious, and the full palette of instruments can be heard well no matter what the volume; as this work has a very wide range of volume, this is essential. The full, lush strings in the Alcotts section fill the soundscape, and the definition of the winds and strings in the beginning of the Thoreau section is clean and precise. There is one tiny problem, though, at the end of the work; applause. There is really no need to have applause at the end of a live recording of any classical work, if that applause can be edited out (which it can here). It stands merely as a reminder that the recording is live - one which, by the way, is unnecessary - and it is almost insulting to reach the end of a work, feel the enjoyment of completion, and then be interrupted by such noise. If I'm in a concert hall, I expect it; on my stereo, I resent it. Why any sound engineer, or anyone else involved in a recording like this, would want to have 5 seconds of applause, is beyond me.
While the headliner on this disc is the Concord Symphony, this current recording does include another work, and no mean one at that: Aaron Copland's Organ Symphony. An early work, premiered in 1925 when Copland was merely 23 years old, this was Copland's first major composition. (Copland later rescored this as his Symphony No. 1.) The three movements are all very different. In the first, light strings play a subtle melody, as the organ plays almost a continuo, but so quietly you can almost miss it. The second movement has a snappy tempo, and is almost dance-like at first, with the orchestra taking center stage, swelling to monumental scale. The organ is, for the most part, in the background, being just another instrument in the orchestra, and not a solo instrument until the very end of this movement where it has a bit of presence. The final movement, Lento, begins with dense strings, and the organ finally becomes prominent, in full expression. Slow, loud chords are enough to shake the room you're in, and I can imagine that, in the Davies Hall, where this was performed, the effect must have been impressive. As the movement goes on, the orchestra becomes imposing and powerful, ending with a powerful punch. While melodically this is a simplistic work, the sound quality, as for the Ives, is excellent.
The Copland is a young composer's work, and, compared to the refinement of Ives' Concord Sonata (and the orchestration herein), is much less interesting. But the coupling of these two works presents two great American composers writing around the same time, and rather than just having the Concord Symphony on this disc, the addition is welcome. Compared to the Davies recording of the Concord Symphony, I'd give a few extra points to this current recording, if only for the sound quality which features better definition. But both are excellent. If you don't know this work, and appreciate Ives, this current disc - with the addition of the Copland - is essential.
To sum up, if I had to choose between these two recordings, I'd lean toward the Tilson Thomas version. This isn't so much because of the additional work by Copland, but the sound and recording are a bit better on that disc. The two performances are similar, but the San Francisco Symphony comes out ahead.
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Copland's organ symphony, the other composition on this CD starts with mysterious organ phrase accompanied by strings and flutes. Scherzo opens with woodwinds and then grows agitated in the strings with the same repeating pulsating theme. This then translates into a pounding percussion heavy rhythmic pulsation in the whole orchestra transitioning into an answer to the original theme bringing the musical conversation to a logical end. There is a slow section to calm the nerves and there ensues recapitulation of the same boisterous, full blooded orchestral-percussive dance theme. strings and most important of all in a very dramatic fashion the organ - almost reminding me of the phantom of the opera musical play this dance theme. This works rightly is not an organ concerto and is a symphony even with the three movements because the music is composed in a such a way that the organ accompanies the whole orchestra rather than acting as a solo virtuoso instrument. The third movement starts with organ and brass having ominous stabs; This motif reappears in the rest of the movement.
The CD cover photography, sleeve color combination and the jewel case design are beautiful. Unlike most Jewel cases on commercial CD recordings, this jewel case is smooth to the touch and appears to of better quality - an indication that they tried to go for quality for this product rather try to minimize their production cost by including cheap quality jewel cases. Good CD to have but the Ives concord symphony will take repeated hearing (unless you are already familiar with the piano sonata).
EMERSON begins with a bang, somewhat like the beginning of SUNTREADER by Carl Ruggles. Within the first few seconds, we hear Beethoven's dit-dit-dit-dah motif. Later on in this symphony, this motif is further developed to create a little tune. Then, within a couple of minutes, things quiet down, and the listener is treated to a series of sound washes. By sound washes, I mean that rhythm and individual instruments are de-emphasized. The general tone of this part of EMERSON is like that of the first several minutes of Ives' DECORATION DAY or WASHINGTON'S BIRTHDAY.
After about five minutes, there occurs an extended quiet section with harp, sounding like one of the quiet movements (with instrumental bird-call sounds) of Messiaen's TURANGULILA SYMPHONY. Following this TURANGULILA section, comes a short flute solo backed by several other instruments. Following the flute solo, the movement continues with a generally pastoral outlook, which eventually is disrupted by jagged brass outbursts, only to return to mellower French horns, a little flute part, and another outburst of jagged brass. The jagged parts are reminiscent of the craggy sections of Ives' BROWNING OVERTURRE. After the noisy BROWNING OVERTURE part, comes an episode with a descending motif played on string basses, reminiscent of the majestic descending motif found in the final movement of Ives's SYMPHONY No.4.
HAWTHORNE begins with a circus atmosphere, sounding like a combination of Carl Stalling's cartoon music and Stravinsky's Petrushka. The listern is treated to squeaks and squawks. Then, what follows is a quiet part with harp, but accompanied by an ominous sonic backdrop like something from a science fiction movie. (A theremin would have been good at this point, but there is no theremin.) Then, the mood changes quickly, and the listener is treated to a brief episode that might be called, "The March of the Farting Goose." Beethoven's dit-dit-dit-dah is played by the brass, and then everything quiets down, and the listener is treated to a short episode sounding like a congregation in church singing in unison (except that there is no singing in the BRANT composition). The church singing is disrupted by a raucous version of Ivesian band music, but decorated by comical popping sounds, apparently arising from hollow wooden blocks struck with a mallet. Then, squeaking clarinets make their entrance, and it is Carl Stalling time again. There is a quiet section, then Ivesian cacophony returns, which includes Columbia the Gem of the Ocean. HAWTHORNE concludes with a yelp.
THE ALCOTTS begins quietly with flutes, with a background of reed instruments. After a minute, the brass play a robust dit-dit-dit-dah, but here the music is dignified and loud (not raucous and loud). Then, the strings play dit-dit-dit-dah, but this motif has been extended in length to create a little melody. (Surprise, surprise! An actual melody in 21st century symphonic music!). Then, a trumpet solo plays a melody (more lyricism for you), and then the French horns play another part of the melody. Then, comes a part where brass in unison play the extended dit-dit-dit-dah melody, which is decorated by an overlayed flute solo.
THOREAU begins quietly with a flute solo, then and oboe solo, which is followed by pizzicato violins. After a couple of minutes comes a wash of loud violins, sounding ominous like the ominous upwards-spiraling part of Bartok's MUSIC FOR STRINGS, PERCUSSION, AND CELESTE. Then, all is quiet again. Then, comes a short and loud throbbing section with brass sounding like snapping sharks. Then, the quiet wash of strings returns. The wash episode includes pleasant notes from the flute and English horn. THOREAU is clearly the quiet movement of this symphony. THOREAU ends quietly and there is not even any concluding yelp.
To conclude, A CONCORD SYMPHONY does appropriate many elements from the works of Charles Ives. The Ivesian elements are all re-configured in accordance with Mr. Brant's compositional style. A CONCORD SYMPHONY contains many parts that are not at all reminiscent of Ives, for example, the circus cartoon episodes. To view the big picture, the CONCORD SYMPHONY is somewhat reminiscent in style to the COLORED FIELD ENGLISH HORN CONCERTO by Aaron Kernis, or to the VIOLIN CONCERTO by Jennifer Higdon. All of these pieces feature dense complexity, occasional strange sound effects played by traditional instruments, general lack of tunes, and a firm basis in tonality. At any rate, it seems to me that CONCORD SYMPHONY, as well as the music of Kernis and Higdon, could be described as tonal. (None of these three composers subject the listener to anything resembling the singularly unappealing music of George Perle, Elliot Carter, or Alban Berg. And so, if you are afraid that A CONCORD SYMPHONY is like the compositions of Perle, Carter, or Berg, then please be assured that there is nothing to worry about.)
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