I guess you could say I was fortunate to be in the generation to be alive and impressionable when the music of American iconoclast Charles Ives first gained wide public exposure and acclaim. It was around 1971-72 when I first encountered his music on LP, including the "Concord Sonata," his symphonies and a myriad of other works, all then coming forth in sometimes spectacular performances.
It had a profound effect on me. Ives' reputation as the "father of modern American music" came about in those years especially, though recordings first started appearing in the '50s.
Now that many years have gone by, we see that his works have not been assimilated into the standard repertoire as readily as, for example, Mahler. Nor have there been huge numbers of recordings of his works in later years. The standard concert-goers' ears have mostly remained conservative on what it wants to hear. Ives' bitter remonstrances against "easy-chair ears" still have some truth to them.
But happily there are recordings still forthcoming now and then. Today we consider an important new one. The Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot has given us new versions of some of Ives' most outstanding orchestral works: Symphony No. 4, the Unanswered Question, Central Park in the Dark, Symphony No. 3 (Seattle Symphony Media 1009).
If you add "Three Places in New England" and "Holidays Symphony" to these works, you essentially have the handful of absolutely brilliant Ives for orchestra, so the combination is most gratifying.
I cut my teeth on the Stokowski/American Symphony Orchestra recording of the Fourth that came out on Columbia in the mid-sixties. The work is arguably Ives at his most daring. Ives sought to address why we are here in this final symphony. The work veers between utter cacaphony and mysteriously hushed passages, collages of hymn tunes, marches and you name it. The Stokowski version still remains the benchmark standard for its wide sweep and its unabashed anarchy. Yet the Seattle Symphony version holds its own as a more crispy articulate reading that nonetheless dives into the chaotic passages with verve. It is a good version to have regardless of whether you are familiar with the Stokowski or not.
"The Unanswered Question" I got to know and love via Leonard Bernstein's recording. It is an exceedingly beautiful mix of strings, which represent the silence of non-answers, the trumpet part, which asks the question repeatedly in a motive of which the last note is unresolved, a half-step higher in Ives' revised version. This is the version Bernstein used. The Seattle version opts for the first version of the motif, a half-step down and hence harmonically "correct." Ironically, it sounds jarringly wrong to me after so many years of hearing the other version. Nonetheless, Morlot captures nicely the winds attempting, more and more unsuccessfully, to answer the question in more and more dissonant ways. This is a fine version, but I do prefer the later trumpet motif, and Bernstein brings out the mysterious quality more fully.
"Central Park in the Dark" was originally meant to be performed with "Question" as "Two Contemplations" (1909) but Ives decided to break them apart. Either way it is good to hear them together, though again I do prefer Bernstein's version of this.
Nonetheless, Seattle under Morot does a fine job with it.
Lastly there is Ives' "Symphony No. 3." The version here has everything going for it. It is in many ways the beginning of "Americana" in the classical realm as a very successful, irresistibly home-spun work which uses hymns and other old-American themes and flavors to create a sort of patchwork quilt of thematic elements that ultimately stand out as beautifully original, pure Ives, only much less avant than the other pieces.
The Seattle version of the 3rd rivals the best out there on disk. It makes of the 4th something very fine, perhaps a slight bit less ascerbic than the Stokowski but worthy to stand alongside it as another constrasting interpretation. The "Question" and "Central Park" fare to me much more convincingly in Bernstein's hands, but there is room for more than one version of course and these offer you an alternate view.
If you have no Ives orchestral to speak of this is a good place to start, though you may want to hunt down the Bernstein and Stokowski versions later. The 3rd is especially ravishing. For those who know Ives well this is a nice addition and a contrasting view of one of the very first modernists and still one of the greatest. Well worth a listen!