The Seattle Symphony play Ives ‘The Unanswered Question’ and more

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Charles Ives
LABELS: Seattle Symphony Media
ALBUM TITLE: Ives
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 3 & 4; Central Park in the Dark; The Unanswered Question
PERFORMER: Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot
CATALOGUE NO: Seattle Symphony Media SSM 1009

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Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony is a formidable prospect, with its vast orchestral and choral demands, its complex textures, in places requiring three conductors to pilot different rhythmic strands, and its multiple textual options to be resolved. (The recent Critical Edition weighs in at around two kilos.) Ludovic Morlot is clearly a master of the material and of his excellent Seattle Symphony forces. He delivers convincing accounts of the brooding, questioning Prelude, the volatile and tumultuous ‘Comedy’, the plain-speaking Fugue and the impressive Finale, a frieze in which the whole of humanity seems to pass in review. The recording, made at two live performances, is successful in conveying the work’s scale and its overall effects, but relies on individual instruments or sections forcing themselves on our attention rather than presenting a panorama made up of accumulated detail.

The remaining works are the Third Symphony, full of hymn tunes recalled from Ives’s New England childhood, and the two ‘Contemplations’, one of a cosmic ‘Unanswered Question’ and the other of an imagined scene in the New York of yesteryear. All these pieces were conceived on a chamber-orchestral scale. The open recordings (made under studio conditions) and the sheer weight of the symphony orchestra’s string section are less than ideal for them, flattening out their dynamic contrasts and reducing their immediacy. But these are clearly rendered interpretations, with plenty to catch the ear, including the magical moment when the Third Symphony is brought to a mid-air close by distant church bells.

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Anthony Burton