WORKS: Three Places in New England; The Unanswered Question; A Set of Pieces; Symphony No. 3 (The Camp Meeting); Set No. 1
PERFORMER: Gilbert Kalish (piano)Orpheus CO
CATALOGUE NO: 439 869-2 DDD
It’s a measure of the extraordinarily high standard of ensemble playing these days that the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra can perform a work as technically challenging as Ives’s Three Places in New England without the aid of a conductor. Yet they manage the task triumphantly. Both the exuberant spatial effects in ‘Putnam’s Camp’ and the polyrhythmic haze that provides the musical backdrop to ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’ are executed with amazing expression and clarity. Perhaps the most familiar full orchestral version of the work, best represented by Michael Tilson Thomas and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on a mid-price DG reissue, has greater dramatic impact. But superior engineering and the leaner textures of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra allow the listener to pick out more individual melodic strands from the musical argument.
The rest of the disc offers an intriguing mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar. There’s a strongly atmospheric rendition of The Unanswered Question, a haunting meditation on the nature of existence, and a fervent account of the revivalist Third Symphony, whose nostalgic closing bars, dominated by the off-stage pealing of bells, stay long in the memory. But the real discovery is Set No. 1, a collection of epigrammatic and speculative pieces, many of which were later recast as songs for voice and piano. Erik Levi