Andrew Davis’s association with Charles Ives’s music goes back at least to his tenure with the BBC Symphony, with which Orchestra he devoted a memorable weekend to it almost two decades ago. It will be interesting to see how inclusive is this Chandos series devoted to Ives’s orchestral work, starting as it does with the first two Symphonies: works that might have established Ives among the foremost symphonists of his generation – had these scores not had to wait decades for their world premieres, until 1953 (Richard Bales) and 1951 (Leonard Bernstein) respectively.
Ives seems to have run into conflict with his teacher Horatio Parker during the genesis of his First Symphony (1898), yet what emerged is a work demonstrably of its time. Relaxed and attentive to detail in its opening Allegro, Davis brings out the underlying pensiveness of its main themes along with that restlessness in the development as finds its fulfilment in a coda where histrionics are (rightly) kept in-check. Come the Adagio and Davis never over-milks the ‘New World’ overtones of an eloquent cor anglais melody whose heady culmination does not pre-empt the wistful close, then the Scherzo unfolds with due contrast between its artful main theme and a Trio that exudes an almost Ländler-like grace. Never easy to hold together, the finale lacks an initial degree of impetus the more evident when its second theme loses direction prior to a development that is essentially a transition into a modified reprise; then, in turn, a coda which wears its ‘Pathétique’ associations with not a little knowingness – something that Davis might have emphasised even more readily in the rousing peroration.
The defining contrast in the Second Symphony (1902) is through its use of existing themes – whether popular songs or hymn-tunes – to provide the melodic content over each of its five movements (the first and fourth being slow introductions). Davis secures a resonant response from the strings in the contrapuntal textures of the initial Andante, segueing seamlessly into the main Allegro whose whimsical second theme is slightly hurried through to a purposeful development, before the coda pointedly sets the seal on this diffuse yet never sprawling entity. Arguably the most finely realised movement from Ives’s formative years, the Adagio is enticingly shaped without quite plumbing the emotional depths as others have done in this unlikely synthesis of Brahms and Americana. Its Lento preamble stern if not inflexibly rendered, the finale proceeds surely – yet, in its ruminative second theme, just a little inertly – to an apotheosis where all European influence is overwhelmed by the flood of home-grown sentiment, with the closing dissonance making for a full-stop as curt as it is decisive.
Taken overall, this new release easily outstrips the overly cautious accounts by Neeme Järvi, while Zubin Mehta’s readings evince more local excitement but little in the way of a longer-term continuity. Broadly similar in outline, those from Andrew Litton have marginally more impact owing to a forward sound balance and a greater willingness to indulge the truly Ivesian traits of each work. With spacious if slightly recessed sound and a decent booklet note, this release can yet be cordially recommended and further instalments are awaited with interest.