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Ives: Symphonies Nos 3 & 4, etc

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas, et al (SFS Media)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Ives: Symphony No. 3 (The Camp Meeting); Symphony No. 4*; Traditonal: Selected American Hymns**
*Peter Dugan (piano); **San Francisco Symphony Chorus; San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
SFS Media SFS 0076 (hybrid CD/SACD)   68:53 mins

Attempts to define the musical identity of Charles Ives often point to greater questions regarding the identity of America. On one hand he’s come to represent a maverick, rugged individualism, pioneering in the face of incomprehension an astonishingly dissonant, sometimes brash modernism way ahead of its time. On the other, as this intriguing recording of his Third and Fourth symphonies alongside American hymns shows, his music celebrates family and community, and is suffused with a sentimental nostalgia grounded in 19th-century European Romanticism.

Linking the strands, Michael Tilson Thomas and his San Francisco Symphony musicians suggest persuasively that, at root, Ives was a religious composer who deployed hymns with care: as ‘building blocks’ in the gentle, gospel-inspired Third Symphony and, in the summative, often riotous Fourth, as ‘vignettes’ underlining a profounder pilgrimage through the tumult of everyday life.

Ives shared the Transcendentalists’ belief in the power of the human spirit – of which all kinds of music, from those all-important hymns to parlour tunes, ragtime and marching bands – were an expression to be embraced. Often this meant simultaneously, and he relished piling these elements beside and atop each other in different keys and time signatures. The results can be extraordinarily complex, but Thomas – Ives’s pre-eminent orchestral interpreter – navigates with smooth skill, ably assisted by the orchestra, piano soloist Peter Dugan and second conductor Christian Reif. Under director Ragnar Bohlin, the SFS Chorus give bright, if brief, renditions of significant hymns before each symphony and sing with gusto in the choral Fourth.

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Steph Power