Ives/Brant: A Concord Symphony

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COMPOSERS: Copland,Ives/Brant
LABELS: SFS Media
WORKS: Ives/Brant: A Concord Symphony; Copland: Organ Symphony
PERFORMER: Paul Jacobs (organ); San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
CATALOGUE NO: SFS 0038

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A Concord Symphony is Henry Brant’s reinterpretation for orchestra of Ives’s landmark Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord. This makes sense, since Ives originally conceived much of his Sonata in orchestral terms, with liberal quotations from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the German composer’s most orchestral piano sonata, the Hammerklavier (Ives viewed Beethoven as the musical equivalent of the transcendalist Emerson). Brant also shared with Ives an interest in polystylism and spatial effects, so it seems only natural that he devoted 30 years to orchestrating that extraordinary work.

In his Essays before a Sonata (see Background to…, left) Ives hinted that the last movement (‘Thoreau’) could be ‘thought of in terms of strings, possibly coloured with a flute or horn’. Brant obliges with lush string textures here and in the opening ‘Emerson’, itself derived in large part from an earlier orchestral overture. The ‘half-childlike, half-fairylike phantasmal realms’ inhabited by ‘Hawthorne’ emerge in hymns and circus band music, to which Brant gives a humorous Roaring Twenties flavour. Rather than trying to imitate the complex layers and dark palette of Ives’s actual orchestral music, Brant instead opts for clarity and brilliance, which Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony offer in spades.

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Copland’s Organ Symphony was considered the height of musical modernism at its premiere in 1925, which featured his teacher Nadia Boulanger as soloist. It seems rather tame now, though still appealing, ruminative in the outer movements, mechanistic in the scherzo. The live recording, though, is absolutely stunning, with the organ clearly spaced in Davies Hall, allowing Paul Jacobs to be in the foreground, and yet an integral part of the orchestra, as the composer intended. Howard Goldstein