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CD Review

Charles Ives

  • Second Orchestral Set 1,2
  • Contemplations #1, The Unanswered Question 1
  • Universe Symphony 1,3
1 Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra/Gerhard Samuel
2 Cincinnati College-Conservatory Chamber Choir
3 Cincinnati College-Conservatory Percussion Ensemble
Centaur CRC2205
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The performance on May 12 this year by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra of Charles Ives' monumental Universe Symphony in the realization by Larry Austin (b. 1930) at Carnegie Hall is the work's New York Première. The only CD that has Austin's realization is this one, on Centaur (CRC2205). There is another… realized and conducted by Johnny Reinhard by The Stereo Society (catalog #7). On Centaur Gerhard Samuel conducts the Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra and Cincinnati College-Conservatory Percussion Ensemble.

Essentially Ives' "Fifth" Symphony, the Universe Symphony is the composer's last, most ambitious and sadly incomplete work. Sketches for it were begun in 1911 (maybe as early as 1908), continued until 1915, abandoned, resumed in 1927/28 and added to sporadically until three weeks before his death in 1954. It's almost certain that more material was prepared for the work; material that is now lost. It's hugely complex. Yet this recording makes it equally compelling, and accessible.

In the Yale archives of his papers, Ives writes: "The Universe Symphony is an attempt in tones, every form – position – known or unknown (to man [sic]) as the eternities are unmeasured, as the source of universal substances are unknown, the earth, the waters, the stars, the ether, yet these elements as man can touch them with hand and microscope, & labeled as chemicals & atoms as the eternal motions, life of all things & man, their destiny. … They are not single and exclusive strands, but incessant myriads for ages, ever & always changing, growing, but for ages ever & always a permanence of their humanity, of the earth for a man's lifetime, of life & death & future life-the only known is the unknown, the only hope of humanity is the unseen spirit – that can't be done but what reaching out to do (as we feel like trying it) is to cast eternal history the physical universe of all humanity to cast them in a 'Universe of Tones'". Ambitious. Yet immediately one begins to listen to this superior account on Centaur (beware – the opening minutes are, as you might expect, all but inaudible – but intentionally, and very effectively, so), any misgivings that a vague, impressionistic daub or wash of ill-digested open-ended unmusical collage was all that could be achieved evaporate instantly.

This is typical, vintage, comforting Ives: the Universe Symphony has all the rigor, discipline, earthy (no pun intended) direction that otherwise characterizes the composer. Almost two dozen independent musical lines are woven into what nevertheless remains a piece of great complexity; each line has its own metrical development. In Gerhard Samuel's performance this – surely correctly – suggests the impersonality, the inevitability and almost infinitely long and indestructible thrust of nature. It's nature first; and humans' observations thereof a distant second (if at all). Although Ives somehow suggests that there's nothing aimless about the universe. It's powered by movement and life.

Ives hoped the work would be played by several orchestras apart from one another physically, geographically even: in separate valleys, mountaintops and hills etc. Strangely, this seems scarcely necessary. In contrast to the gargantuan orchestral scales and conceptions of Mahler or Wagner, Strauss or Scriabin even, Ives Universe Symphony does not try to evoke or paint, describe or even emulate the immensity of the universe. Its very musical tightness, speed, careful momentum, instrumentation, tonalities, scattered rhythms, surprises, uncompromising (and typically Ivesean) splashes and dirges of dissonance themselves all suggest the complexity, hugeness and force of the universe.

Almost as noteworthy is Ives' open request (again in the Yale manuscripts) that others work on and with his ideas in the event that he not complete the Universe Symphony himself. This legitimizes Austin's project further. Not that the latter lacks the pedigree, drive, experience and originality in his own right – Austin's own list of compositions and publications is impressive. But respecting Ives in this realization is important. In matters of scoring, texture: woodwinds brass and percussion predominate, though do not dominate.

Key to understanding Ives' intent is to appreciate that the universe exists not as a mass of rocks; but as an entity with an integral life pulse. Hence the emphasis on percussion. Austin originally worked with a system of click tracks on computer. But neither pulse nor rhythm swamps the listener. Rather, the typical Ivesean mass textures do. They also suggest life, impetus, pulse. This is perhaps the most striking aspect of the work.

Samuel's conception is clear, clean and considered. The sections into which the sketches are divided indicate that the work was originally intended to be divided. Such segments make obvious sense. Yet they never fragment our sense of the work's wholeness, its homogeneity. This is quite an achievement. It was as important for Samuel and his forces as it was for Austin to understand Ives' idiom completely. This they do. It's plain particularly when they move on to the more familiar Second Orchestral Set and Unanswered Question. Listening to these after the CD's main work (which lasts under 40 minutes in this recording) reveals just how much empathy and sonic sensitivity it takes to perform this often misunderstood composer. These musicians have all the necessary preparation, insight and technique.

The acoustic for all three recordings was not an over-responsive one… the Corbett Auditorium at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. Rightly, it throws our attention back onto the essence of the music. The booklet that comes with the CD is full and informative. It contains most of the background which one needs in order to get to grips with this remarkable feat of Ives. It may take more than one listening to move from the onslaught that Ives can represent to the unfamiliar listener and appreciate the sense of immensity and universality for which Ives was aiming (realizations are realizations: Ives finished work would have been welcome). But well worth it. Recommended.

Copyright © 2012, Mark Sealey.