Ives Concord Symphony / Copland Organ Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas

This CD is very unusual—a 20th century American classic re-imagined by another visionary composer and performed by a major American orchestra. Ives’ most famous work, the Concord Sonata for solo piano, does not immediately strike one as ripe for orchestration—the lack of barlines, the wooden bar that the pianist uses to depress the keys (Ives gives precise measurements: 14¾ inches), the ossia flute and viola lines, the improvisatory character of the music, and man other factors have discouraged any serious attempt. Indeed, the frequent adaptation by Ives himself of his songs and piano works in orchestral scores would suggest that if he had wanted it done he would have done it himself. The composer foolhardy enough to ignore all these caveats and proffer an orchestration was the remarkable poly-stylist Henry Brant, who is best known for his music using large, spatially-distributed ensembles of homogeneous tone-colour, and it was of course a huge undertaking, the work stretching intermittently from 1958 to 1994. Brant’s basic compositional approach is sufficiently aligned with that of Ives to guarantee, at the very least, that the exercise not be futile, but from the opening it is quite clear that Brant’s orchestral writing is radically different from that of Ives: his soundworld is intensely focussed, his textures are almost Brahmsian (and rather less clunky than Ives’ own early Symphonies), clothing the familiar Concord sonorities in an unexpected, oddly European-sounding raiment. We know from Ives’ own scores that he almost always elaborated his piano works and songs fantastically when he came to upscale them—the Housatonic at Stockbridge in the Three Places in New England for instance—and Brant has steadfastly avoided embellishing the original in any major way. What Brant has patently not done, then, is try to imagine what an Ives orchestration of the Concord would have been like. Even the Circus Band fragments in “Hawthorne” bear little resemblance to Ives’ own orchestrations of that material. Just like the piano version, this Concord Symphony rambles: it digresses, it hectors, and occasionally pulverises the listener …and yet, it hangs together supremely in this live performance by the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Ives specialist Michael Tilson Thomas. Henry Brant has done us a huge service by revisiting an already great work and forging from it something compellingly new and unique.

After the Ives, Copland’s early Organ Symphony comes over as being a bit, well, one-dimensional. The work precedes his mature “Americana” style and although it was held up by Virgil Thomson as “the Voice of America in our generation”, the musical language could be fairly described as generic European ‘20s modernist. For those who like music for organ and orchestra it is an enjoyable addition to the canon and this compelling performance—by the SFSO under Tilson Thomas, live, again—makes considerable impact. I’m certainly happy to have this odd piece on my shelf.

What does jar about this otherwise very attractive SACD hybrid is the price. I for one would be prepared to shell out almost $50 for this single disc, but it does make one pause. All I can advise is to give it serious consideration as a really unusual and worthwhile listening experience.

Review reprinted with permission of Thomas’ Music.