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CD Review

American Orchestral Classics

Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Järvi
Chandos CHAN9053
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To say the least, I find this an odd pairing of composers - one an arch-Romantic, the other thoroughly modern in outlook. Why not Brahms and Stockhausen? Ives and Barber share only nationality. Despite his musical gadgets, Ives' affinity for transcendentalism, Whitmanic addresses to the Universe, pure late 19th-century sprawl, and nostalgia for his childhood clearly mark him in the Romantic tradition. And despite his ability to write a great tune, Barber's formal concision, ironic distance, and construction of stylistic masks definitely point to his modernity.

Ives wrote his first symphony as his Yale graduation exercise for his composition teacher, the American Wagnerian Horatio Parker. In spirit, the work, as several commentators have pointed out, is very Dvořákian (the "New World" Symphony premièred in New York the year before). The first movement, a big symphonic waltz, recalls the Czech master's Symphony #6, and the second movement, with its English horn solos and gentle syncopations, the "Going Home" of Dvořák's Ninth. Ives may have resented Parker's "interference" with the work and indeed grumbled about it decades later, but the fact remains that this is a damned attractive work, close to Ives' Second in idiom and without the aggressive quotation that would become one of the fingerprints of his mature output (interestingly, the finale contains themes Ives would re-use in his Second). This Symphony #1 reminds us of Ives' thoroughly professional training and equipment - the lively and witty scherzo especially, clean and elegant in its part-writing - and contradicts the myth of the homespun Yankee constructing time machines in his tool shed out of leftover bicycle parts and chewing gum. In fact, of roughly contemporary American symphonies, only Beach's "Celtic" Symphony (now there was a largely self-taught composer) surpasses it. One still sees Ives' hankering for new horizons in the work, especially in the first movement, where he seems determined to traverse all the keys and which, in one remarkable passage, basically drops all thematic and sonata pretense and collapses into ear-stretching chord progressions.

Järvi and Detroit turn in a professional job with essentially unfamiliar material (the only other recorded performances I know are Farberman's and Morton Gould's). This is hardly a repertory staple with a long performing tradition, and I believe conductors still have to find their way into the work. The awkwardness shows up in the finale, where Järvi can't contain the formal sprawl. Still, Järvi does give the music a nice rhythmic spring, and the playing is more refined than with Gould's Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

As far as I know, Barber invented the term "essay," to denote a musical form. He wrote three, each fairly typical of their period in his compositional development - early, middle, and late. Since the essays formally differ from each other, definition becomes difficult, although the composer offered the following, from the Oxford English Dictionary: "a composition of moderate length on a particular subject… more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range." Even if this were true of all three "essays" (and I don't believe it is; it applies best to the first), the definition kind of begs the question of the reason for calling these pieces "essays" at all. Surely, definition fits just about anything. Why not "étude" or "study" or "mouvement symphonique" or something else?

Barber had a tender musical conscience, which prompted him to go so far as to remove all traces of his second symphony (fortunately, he didn't succeed). The First Essay (or as it was known then, the Essay) to Barber was not a symphonic movement. It differs mainly in that it is a two-part form, as opposed to the large ternary form of a sonata-allegro. Furthermore, the essay is practically monothematic, with the matter of the second part derived from the opening. The first part has one of those genius memorable themes which Barber seemed to produce as casually as he would a Dunhill cigarette case. Of course it cost him - the limited size of his output, if nothing else, indicates that. The second part presents a rhythmically condensed and electrified version of the first theme in a scherzo passage. The composer combines the two forms of the theme at the end. The idiom is fairly typical of early Barber - dipping into the soaring, fresh lyricism of the Violin Concerto, String Quartet, Overture to the "School for Scandal", and the Music to a Scene from Shelley. Most performances get the lyrical part of the piece, but miss the strongly rhythmic second part. Hard to believe, but most conductors mess it up, usually by a too-slow tempo or a warm and fuzzy articulation. The best performance of this work remains Howard Hanson's on Mercury (not currently available), despite a less-than-ideal string sound. Järvi and Detroit sing beautifully in the first part, and - thanks perhaps to Järvi's training as a percussionist - cleanly articulate the scherzo, although Järvi's reading lacks the electricity of Hanson's.

The Second Essay, completed four years later in 1942, shows an incredible formal, orchestration, and harmonic advance over the First. Again, the work is, to all intents and purposes, monothematic, with everything generated from the opening bars. The theme itself is more angular than one normally associates with Barber, but this angularity becomes typical of the composer from the 40s on. Still, the theme seems tamed to Barber's strong lyrical impulse. I believe few people realize the oddity of the motto's shape or how little amenable it is to development. Barber sweated over the Second Essay for more than a year, finally producing a dramatic, powerful masterpiece - one, by the way, which would grace any symphony - and so in charge of his materials that he moves from a fervent, singing opening to a driving devil of a fugue. This time, instead of a sharply bifurcate form, the composer concerns himself with transitions and transformations. When well-performed, the movement comes off as a giant, headlong rush. Järvi, with one of the best recorded performances, stresses the elegance of the work. He competes only with the legendary New York Philharmonic performance conducted by Thomas Schippers (not currently available), but the latter, in my opinion, is the single greatest disc devoted to Barber's music. Under Schippers, the piece blazes with passion. Other than World War II, I have little idea what was going on with Barber at the time (the composer played his personal cards very close to his vest), but the piece comes across as a cry of pain as well as ardor. Järvi doesn't miss this, but he also doesn't have quite the impact of Schippers (no one does).

Compared to the Second, the Third Essay seems slightly less focussed, but the organizing principles of the piece are more fundamental: the themes seem generated from a few basic intervals and (mainly dactylic) rhythms. The work opens with a virtuoso passage for percussion, where the rhythms gradually coalesce into recognizable themes, which grow more and more lyrical, until Barber comes out with a glorious, full-throated song. Still, the song comes from the rather jagged music that preceded. It depends heavily on the same set of intervals (with shifts between diatonic and chromatic versions of the themes) and the same rhythms, only here slowed and smoothed out. The piece seems to concern itself with the relation between rhythm and song – you can't get much more basic than that. Toward the end, as the song closes, the percussive elements return to the fore, but transformed as extensions of the lyricism. This is Barber's last completed orchestral score (a Canzonetta for oboe and orchestra was edited and orchestrated by Charles Turner, Barber's only composition student). As such, it tempts me to writing something about the composer giving his valediction to us all, but in fact it does nothing of the kind. The composer continued to explore and expand his range. Barber always took risks, but the experiments succeeded so well that many saw only assurance. Compare the Third Essay to the First to see how far Barber travelled and also how much he managed to keep. Järvi and Detroit surpass Mehta and the New York Philharmonic (the original performers), especially rhythmically - probably the work's most important quality. The sound seems a bit under-recorded here (I had to turn up the volume to get the opening timpani), but other than that, Chandos gives its usual warm treatment.

Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz