Keeping Score: Ives Holidays Symphony

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Ives
LABELS: Avie
WORKS: Ives: Holidays Symphony – documentary plus concert
PERFORMER: San Francisco Symphony/ Michael Tilson Thomas
CATALOGUE NO: 821936-0024-90 (

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 If a picture is worth a thousand words, is it worth a thousand notes? If it whets our appetite to hear those notes, then the answer might be yes, which is certainly the case with these latest DVDs in the San Francisco Symphony’s Keeping Score series. The images, interviews, and research contained in each hour-long documentary had me absorbed throughout, whetting my appetite for each work’s complete performance.

Interviews with SFSO musicians – who explain the peculiarities of Berlioz’s string writing, or what it’s like to be in the middle of Ives’s controlled chaos – are among the most revealing moments in the documentaries. For the Shostakovich, those who grew up in the Soviet Union offer grim memories that confirm the meaning of his Fifth Symphony as one of empty celebration.

The affable yet erudite Tilson Thomas takes us to the Alpine village where Berlioz grew up, a New England town square celebrating Fourth of July with Ivesian exuberance, and the apartment building where Shostakovich waited in terror for the security forces to arrest him, providing viewers with an inimitable sense of the world these composers lived in, as well as a context to appreciate some pithy musical insights.

The ending of the Shostakovich is recomposed with a conventional ‘happy ending’ to better demonstrate the ambivalence of the original, while the image of a 12-year old Berlioz, plaintively singing his youthful song about unrequited love that would become the opening of the Symphonie fantastique, will haunt you for days.

The Berlioz and Shostakovich performances come from live concerts, the former at Davies Hall, the orchestra’s home base, the latter from a 2007 Albert Hall Proms; the Ives was taped in an empty Davies, the better to display some of the spatial techniques Ives calls for.

The Berlioz is remarkably fleet yet passionate, while the orchestra sounds as luminous as ever, especially the masterfully blended woodwinds. The temporal extremes of the Ives are well negotiated, from stasis to kinetic meltdown, again with an inner glow that perfectly suits both the pensive hymn settings as well as the ‘confrontational crunches’.

The Shostakovich is slightly let down by the cavernous acoustics of the Albert Hall and the premature slowing at the end of the last movement (contrary to the score), but the interpretation is thankfully free of rhetorical overkill.The Hi-Def video is stunning in its clarity, fully revealing the masterful editing, composition, and camera movement that always fits the music, without veering into gimmickry.

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A short bonus feature included on all these DVDs details the elaborate camera setup in Davies Hall that truly places the viewer inside the orchestra, where all concerned are clearly having a blast. Howard Goldstein