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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa