WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1 & 2
PERFORMER: Melbourne Symphony/Andrew Davis
CATALOGUE NO: CHSA 5152 (hybrid CD/SACD)
This disc begins with a polite Dvorák-like oboe melody and ends with a raspberry, a full orchestra playing a loud 11-note dissonance. In between, Ives was working out how to be Ives. The First Symphony was his Yale graduation exercise, written under the stern supervision of the conservative Horatio Parker. It’s hugely indebted to Dvorák, not least in the cor anglais tune that begins the slow movement (as in the New World Symphony). But there are occasional hints of a less docile Ives, in flamboyant scalewise runs, and in some challenging triplet cross-rhythms in the finale.
The Second Symphony also owes something to Dvorák and his exhortation to American composers to seek inspiration in their native music. Free of Parker’s censorship, Ives drew on familiar everyday music: hymns, folk dance tunes, parlour and college songs. And he mixed these with allusions to the European classics, in what’s already recognisable as a characteristic collage.
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra players sound thoroughly at ease with this uneasy music, producing a smooth, well-blended sound – enhanced by a luminous recording – with characterful solo interjections. Andrew Davis takes the smooth with the rough, treating the First as if it were (good) Dvorák, and highlighting Ives’s subversive presence in the Second without exaggeration. It’s an enjoyable start to this series.