Brilliant new recordings of Ives four symphonies
Reviewed in the United States on 4 February 2021
When you burst onto the scene at a young age and are blessed with an abundance of both talent and charisma, it is inevitable that some of the musical establishment will be hesitant to admire your work. The young Leonard Bernstein experienced it, particularly with New York Times critic Harold Schonberg, and I have seen it in reactions to Gustavo Dudamel. He is generally credited with bringing energy and excitement to his conducting, but there is often an undercurrent of skepticism when it comes to recognizing his quite extraordinary musicianship.
I saw him twice in 2007 conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was 26, and the sheer musicality was breathtaking. It was much more than a feel for the big moments (whether in Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony or Mahler’s First); it was his sense of the architecture of both pieces that stood out and his ability to find the poetry and repose in those scores alongside the power. I spoke with musicians in both orchestras immediately following the concerts, and they were in awe.
In 2010 I was invited to attend the open rehearsal he held at MIT, where Dudamel had been awarded the Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts. The recipient is expected to provide a campus residency concluding in a public event, and the open rehearsal was Dudamel’s public event. You might have expected him to choose to rehearse the MIT orchestra in something flashy, and he did include a limited amount of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol. But his main choice, the piece on which he spent the bulk of the rehearsal, was Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony. Listening to his analysis, his comments to the musicians, comparing segments of the symphony to passages in Mozart operas, it became clear that Dudamel was a very serious, thoughtful musician.
I have since watched his career blossom and have seen no signs yet that he’s coasting. Not every performance is great, but virtually every one is thoughtful and well considered. He’s only 40 years old, so there is reason to believe that he will continue to grow. I think the project of recording Ives’s four numbered symphonies is a very significant achievement for him. I have no idea how long he has studied these scores, but Dudamel has avoided the easy way of emphasizing the garish colors of the music and has probed each score deeply.
The First Symphony is the most conservative of the four, sounding for much of its length like Dvořák. There are also reminiscences of Schubert and Wagner in this score. However, there are hints of what Ives would become in the surprise modulations and in its playfulness. Dudamel balances the various aspects well, and he seems to favor that impishness, often emphasizing contrasts in the score. He does not shy away from its beauty either. His shaping of the Adagio, with its lovely English horn solo (a reminder of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony), is tender and supple.
The Second Symphony, waited to be premiered until 1951 and was championed by Leonard Bernstein, is far more “Ivesian.” The combination of Dudamel, Disney Hall, and DG’s engineers opens up levels of orchestral detail hidden on most recordings. In this symphony the issue of balances becomes critical. Ives frequently has a number of musical ideas going at the same time, and care must be taken so that we hear them all without the ear becoming overwhelmed. Also important in this work is sounding natural and comfortable with both the score’s lyrical episodes and its raucous ones. Here is the great strength of Dudamel’s performance. In lyrical passages he is unapologetically warm and affectionate. Then when all hell breaks loose, it does with utter abandon. The accelerando that he makes for the final statement of “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” in the coda of the finale strikes me as the one misstep, depriving the moment of the pompous grandeur that Ives was poking fun at. Otherwise, as an overall performance Dudamel’s Ives Second takes its place alongside classic recordings by Bernstein (who recorded it twice) and Tilson Thomas.
The Third Symphony, ‘The Camp Meeting,” is the most intimate and shortest of the four. It is difficult to bring off because it lacks the splashes of color of the other three. The conductor must be able to find the score’s grace and elegance through affectionate phrase-shaping. The various Protestant hymns that are included must seem integral to the flow of the music, not tacked on. The extended quiet ending to the finale, with its delicate church bells, may well have appealed to Mahler, who took the score to Vienna to study on his final trip out of New York. Dudamel’s ear for color and balance is very keen, and he conveys the beauty and mystery of those final pages exquisitely.
After the restraint of the Third Symphony, the Fourth is a radically dramatic contrast. It is the most modernist and dissonant of the symphonies. Themes appear in fragmentary form, rarely extended for their full duration. The chorus (heard only in this work) sings hymn tunes, often against orchestral music that seems completely unrelated. The music is so complex that many conductors choose to employ an assistant to conduct sections where Ives calls for different, often opposing time signatures. Marta Gardolińska, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Conducting Fellow, performs this function here. Everything that I said about the importance of balance and a keen ear in the earlier symphonies applies even more in the Fourth. The range of orchestral colors is extraordinary, and Dudamel keeps everything in its proper perspective. The percussion is raucous when it should be, and the strings are tender and heartfelt when they should be. This is music of chaos and wildness, and Dudamel conveys the bedlam brilliantly, while making it sound logical.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic musicians play brilliantly, and the engineers have captured it all in splendidly transparent but full-bodied sound. Although these are live recordings, no audience noise is present.
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