Ives: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Carter: Instances; Gershwin: An American in Paris. Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony. Seattle Symphony Media SSM1003.

Here's another live recording from Maestro Ludovic Morlot and Seattle Symphony, this one covering several twentieth-century American works.

Morlot begins with the Second Symphony of Charles Ives (1874-1954). A lot of listeners have concerns with Ives's music, and I have to admit that I can take it or leave it. However, it always amuses me to listen to it because Ives often makes these things a game of "Name That Tune," with his references to so many bits and pieces from other composers. The Second Symphony is no different, quoting snippets of "Turkey in the Straw," "Long, Long Ago," "Camptown Races," "America the Beautiful," "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," and this and that from Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, among others.

Ives wrote his Symphony No. 2 early in his career, somewhere between 1897 and 1901, although it never saw a premiere performance until 1951 with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Indeed, a fine DG recording Bernstein later made with his old New York orchestra has rather spoiled me these past few decades, with Bernstein seeming to make Ives more palatable than recordings from most other conductors. For that matter, though, several conductors I've heard have also impressed me, most notably Bernard Herrmann and Michael Tilson Thomas.

Anyway, the Second Symphony under Morlot is fine, too. As I say, this early Ives work is pretty easy to take compared to some of the more-raucous pieces he would later produce. The Second Symphony is full of sweetly flowing melodies, and Morlot does a decent job of maintaining the rapturous qualities of the tunes. The symphony is a little unusual in that it adds a fifth movement to the conventional four, a slow Lento Maestoso before the final Allegro. This tends to give it even more of a grand Romantic feel, although, to be fair, Morlot doesn't play up its sentimental attributes quite as much as Bernstein does. Listeners may find this a plus or a minus.

It's in the second movement that we get the greatest number of musical allusions, and Morlot seems to have a good time with them. However, the conductor's style may be a tad too straightforward to reveal the full joy of the music. Again, Bernstein seems a bit freer with his rhythms and a touch more lyrical. And so it goes, with the finale under Morlot adding a zesty conclusion to the affair.

Next up is a brief piece, a world-premiere recording of Instances by American composer and two-time Pulitzer Prizewinner Elliott Carter (1908-2012). It would be Carter's last completed work, and as such it is the most-modern in structure and sound. I didn't find it particularly to my liking, but others will no doubt enjoy its rhythmic vitality, its intriguingly colorful interludes, and its various percussive effects.

Ludovic Morlot
Finally, we get the most-popular piece on the program: the symphonic poem An American in Paris by composer and pianist George Gershwin (1898-1938). Here, too, I'm afraid I have to admit that Bernstein is the superior interpreter on his Columbia (now Sony) recording with the New York Philharmonic. This is by no means a repudiation of Morlot, you understand; it's just that side by side, Bernstein communicates the greater energy, greater emotion, greater color and description. Morlot seems just a shade more reticent to let go. Still, Morlot has the measure of the music well enough, and those car honks at the opening do put us in the mood of big-city life. The sultry blues section in the middle also comes off well, the conductor displaying a good feeling for the idiom. For me, it was Morlot's best work on the disc, and the Seattle players don't let him down.

Dmitriy Lipay produced, engineered, and edited the album, which he and his team recorded live in concert at the S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington in June 2012 (Ives), February 2013 (Carter), and September 2011 (Gershwin). The live sound in the Ives work seems fairly distanced and spacious, the audience for the most part quiet. It presents a good concert-hall effect. The Carter piece appears closer up, the Gershwin in between. The only things that disrupt the effect of the music are the unwanted eruptions of applause that follow the first and third works on the disc. I mean, why go to all the trouble of keeping an audience as unobtrusive as possible throughout much of the music, only to have them disrupt our concentration at the end? Oh, well; otherwise, the sound is smooth and moderately well extended in terms of dynamics and frequency response in the closer-miked works, less so in the opening Ives piece.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa