Andrew Davis conducts the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Charles Ives’ Symphonies Nos 3 & 4

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COMPOSERS: Charles Ives
LABELS: Chandos
ALBUM TITLE: Ives
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 3 (The Camp Meeting) & 4; Orchestral Set No. 4
PERFORMER: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano); Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis
CATALOGUE NO: CHSA 5174 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Revisiting the pioneering 1960s recordings of Charles Ives’s music makes you realise the distance travelled in performing this maverick’s unique brand of Americana. No conductor now would paint Orchestral Set No. 2’s opening colours with the uncouth clarity of Morton Gould (1967), or crown his euphonious Symphony No. 3 with clumsily booming taped bells (Harold Farberman, 1968). Even the Fourth Symphony’s anarchic fireworks have acquired some finesse. In Andrew Davis’s third Ives volume for Chandos, that towering work has also acquired a ‘star’ solo pianist, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, who constantly bends the ear, both with wild acrobatics and tinkles. Here especially, the clarity and detail of Ives’s sound textures will partly depend on the state of the listener’s audio equipment. But everyone should appreciate Davis’s subtle dynamic shadings, heartfelt phrasings, and the finale’s magical tapestry of universal harmony. The Melbourne forces and Chandos’s engineers deal well with all challenges, though we needed a longer breathing space after the second movement’s chaos.

As always, the Third Symphony appears suave and pastoral alongside. Occasionally the orchestra is too beefy, but you cannot fault the performance’s warmth or the haunting final chimes, summoning the memory of clashing church bells ringing over Ives’s Connecticut home town. In between the Orchestral Set’s ragtime ructions, Davis’s loving care stands out in the opening tribute to Stephen Foster and the chorus’s distant placing in the moving Lusitania memorial. But is there too much finesse about today’s Ives for performances to be ‘authentic’? Despite this CD’s pleasures, it’s a question worth debating.

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Geoff Brown